A dictionary might define physics as "the science that deals with matter and energy," but in fact it is not practical to set any limits upon physics "by definition." Physicists study everything from galaxies to subatomic particles, from window glass to living things, in an attempt to understand the basic principles of nature and their effects on the world in which we live. Students studying physics at Oberlin find a lively, diverse program with faculty interested in both undergraduate teaching and physics research, with a rich selection of physics and astronomy courses, and with ample opportunities for both formal and informal physics education, including active student research involvement.
Our program is large enough to offer a first-rate education, yet small enough to encourage close student-faculty interaction. The course offerings cover the fundamental areas of physics as well as other topics ranging from electronics to astrophysics. Guest speakers visit campus about once a month to give lectures and to talk informally with students. Frequent lunch gatherings generate lively discussion between students and faculty concerning recent happenings in physics.
About a dozen physics majors graduate each year. The majority of our majors pursue further study in physics or other scientific fields (such as engineering or biophysics); recent graduates are currently attending a variety of institutions such as Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, the University of Arizona, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin. A number of other graduates have pursued careers in high school science teaching. Still others have found rewarding jobs in industry, in computer programming, or in something completely different.
Each year, about one-third of the senior majors participate in the honors program, for which they adopt a research project of their own choosing. Many students select projects related to faculty research, while others pursue even more independent investigations.
Our faculty members engage in research in a variety of areas including radio astronomy, optics, materials physics, and theoretical physics. During summers and the academic year, many students assist faculty with their experiments. Students recently accompanied faculty members to Puerto Rico for radio astronomy observations and to Maryland for neutron scattering measurements.
The physics and astronomy department is primarily located in the Wright Laboratory of Physics, which houses offices, classrooms, teaching and research laboratories, and a machine shop and an electronics shop. The ground floor of Wright houses an impressive laboratory facility with updated electrical, air, and chilled water services. The upper two floors were renovated in 2001 and 2002. Departmental apparatus includes a femtosecond frequency comb, two high-vacuum chambers for thin film deposition, two high precision infrared spectrometers, several closed-cycle helium cryostats, a vibrating sample magnetometer, a reflecting telescope with a state-of-the-art CCD camera, an electrically shielded room, and several computer labs. A multipurpose X-ray diffractometer is shared with the chemistry department.
The Oberlin College Observatory and Planetarium are housed separately in Peters Hall, with ample opportunities for student involvement.
The courses in physics and astronomy are designed to serve both students interested in science as an important part of a general education and those desiring intensive training in physical science.
Students may major in physics as preparation for further professional training in physics, astronomy, or engineering, or as excellent background for careers in other fields such as medicine, law, biology, geology, and secondary school science teaching. The physics major offers concentrations in physics, astrophysics, and materials physics. Students interested in careers in engineering may also consider the Combined Liberal Arts and Engineering Program.
We encourage students with special interests to include physics and astronomy courses in an individual major, or to plan a double major. Physics and astronomy students at Oberlin have opportunities to work closely with faculty members on research projects during the academic terms, winter term, and in the summer.
More information is available in the course catalog.