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Scene from a physics lab

Smith College physics provides integrated, hands-on learning, supportive professors and fellow physics majors, real research projects and great physics toys.

The physics department offers a rigorous curriculum that pairs innovative teaching techniques with a supportive and close-knit community of faculty, staff and students. Students often double major with astronomy, computer science, math, engineering, chemistry and architecture. You can carry out leading-edge research on your own or in collaboration with faculty starting your first year. Faculty research interests include nonlinear optics, experimental and computational condensed matter physics, complex fluids, molecular materials, low-dimensional systems, cold atom physics and cosmology.


Please welcome Ellie Martin-Eberhardt to the Smith College Physics Department!

We are pleased to announce that Ellie Martin-Eberhardt will be joining our department this fall as our new Lab Supervisor! 

Please welcome Dr. Casey Berger to the Smith College Physics Department!

We are pleased to announce that Dr. Casey Berger will be joining our department this fall.  Here is her website:

“Overflowing Bathtubs and Leaky Boats”

Professor Nat Fortune was featured in the Grécourt Gate for lecture on climate change.

Welcoming “Little Sibs” to the Physics Community

The Society of Physics Students (SPS), a national organization of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), awarded the Smith College chapter the designation of a Society of Physics Students 2019 Distinguished Chapter. Read about the award.


Smith College physics majors graduate with a combination of disciplinary knowledge and skills that prepares them for graduate work in physics or other STEM fields, medical school, teaching, science policy and a variety of other career options.


The primary areas of knowledge covered by our major are mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics and thermal physics. Students will gain a good introductory knowledge of electronics, special relativity, optics, fluids and error analysis. In addition to these physical topics, our students need to master a variety of mathematical topics required in these fields.


At least as important as disciplinary knowledge are the skills required for a degree in physics. These include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Good problem-solving technique, including identification of physical principles, good use of diagrams, clear mathematical derivations, proper use of units, and physical analysis and assessment of results.
  • Ability to convey knowledge and observations in both oral and written forms.
  • Use of computer-based numerical and analytical methods to solve complex physical problems.
  • Gain insight through the use of experimental design, instrumentation and methods that reveal signal and reduce noise in messy data.
  • Data analysis, including the use of plotting software and basic statistical analysis to draw conclusions and infer significance.

The Education Track

Students who choose the education track in the physics major may learn some topics at a more introductory level in some areas than it would be for a regular major, but they should still gain facility with all of the topics listed above, except, in some cases, thermal physics. They should also get a good working knowledge of the main ideas to emerge from physics education research. They should become proficient in all the skills listed above as well as tutoring and providing in-class help to students.

Advisors: Members of the department
Physics is crucial to understanding our world. Physics challenges our imagination, provides insight into our most important challenges and leads to great discoveries and new technologies. Physicists are problem solvers whose analytical skills and training make them versatile and adaptable. A foundation in physics provides a gateway to interdisciplinary careers incorporating many scientific and educational fields, including astronomy, engineering, biology, chemistry, climate science, environmental science, geoscience, mathematics, medicine and teaching.

The undergraduate physics curriculum at Smith stresses the fundamental principles, concepts and methods of physics with emphasis placed on analytical reasoning, problem­-solving and the critical evaluation of underlying assumptions in theory and experiment. Built around the core courses that achieve this goal, the major allows options within the requirements that provide flexibility to students primarily interested in interdisciplinary applications of physics.

The requirements for the major are as follows: the two semester introductory physics course sequence 117 plus 118 or the one semester advanced introductory course 119; the intermediate physics courses  210, 215, 240; and the advanced physics courses 350, 360 (or an approved 300-­level alternative in physics or a related field), plus any 2 of the following: 317, 318, 319, 327.

Flow chart for the physics major at Smith College

While students are typically discouraged from taking PHY major requirements S/U, it may be allowed, after consultation with a student's major advisor and approval of the Department.
Students double majoring in engineering may substitute EGR 220 for PHY 240 but are encouraged to take both.

Students may repeat PHY 360 for credit in the major, with permission of the department.

Students are advised to check with members of the physics department to choose appropriate course substitutions; other courses may qualify, with advanced permission of the department.

Physics majors and minors are advised to acquire a facility in scientific computing and numerical analysis (e.g. CSC 111 Introduction to Computer Science or CSC 205 Modeling in the Sciences) and to learn to design and fabricate a working tool, instrument or device in the Center for Design and Fabrication. Students planning graduate study in physics are advised to take as many 300 ­level physics courses as possible.

Advisers: Members of the department

The minor consists of: 117, 118, 215 and three additional 200- or 300-level physics courses. When appropriate, and with prior approval, one qualifying course in the student’s major can be substituted for one of the three physics electives required for the physics minor. Interested students should consult with a member of the department.

Advisors: Members of the department

Besides the standard physics major, we also offer a physics education track within the major. The regular major track includes 300 level course requirements necessary for preparation for graduate school. The education track replaces some of the upper level courses with courses in physics pedagogy and education and engages students in practical experience in the physics classroom. Students interested in teaching and science journalism should consider this track.

Physics Courses: 117 and 118 (or 119), 210, 215, 240, 300 (at least twice), 301 and one of  the following: 317, 318, 319, 327.
Astronomy: AST 111
Education Courses: 232, 238

Note: This track does not lead to Educator Licensure. Students who wish to satisfy licensure requirements would need to take EDC courses EDC 342, 347, 352, 390, plus EDC 346 (Clinical Internship in Teaching), and should consult with a faculty member of the Department of Education and Child Study.

Director: Gary Felder

Students can apply to complete honors, which involves working on an independent thesis project with one of the faculty members of the department. The completion of the thesis work will lead to a bachelor of arts degree with a notation of "Honors," "High Honors" or "Highest Honors." Look for information about how to apply, the timelines, dates and eligibility on the class deans website.

For the physics department, the eligibility criterion are as follows: GPA: π outside the major and 1.1π in the major

Honors in Your Senior Year

If you would like to do a thesis project in your senior year, talk to the faculty in the department to find out about their research and get an early start. Although not absolutely essential, it helps to get a head start with semester/summer projects with the faculty. Once you and your faculty project adviser have discussed and agreed to this, you have to wait to apply to enter departmental honors at the start of your senior year. The application deadline is within the first week of classes. Give the proposal and application priority when you return to campus. Once your proposal is approved by your department or program and the Subcommittee on Honors and Independent Programs (SHIP), you will get automatically officially registered in the course. This usually happens during the third week of the semester in which you start your thesis.


PHY 110 Energy, Environment and Climate 
Our planet’s reliance on carbon-based, non-renewable energy sources comes at a severe environmental, economic and political cost. Are there alternatives? This course offers a hands‑on exploration of renewable energy technologies with an emphasis on understanding the underlying scientific principles. Students will assess worldwide energy demand, study the limits to improved energy efficiency, explore the science and technology of solar, wind, and hydropower, understand the science behind global warming, investigate climate models, and evaluate strategies for a sustainable future. This course also includes in‑class experiments and field trips.   {N} Credits: 4 
Members of the department 
Expected to be offered in the next 3 years 

PHY 117 Introductory Physics I 
The concepts and relations (force, energy and momentum) describing physical interactions and the changes in motion they produce, along with applications to the physical and life sciences. Lab experiments, lectures and problem-solving activities are interwoven into each class. Discussion sections offer additional help with mathematics, data analysis and problem solving. This course satisfies medical school and engineering requirements for an introductory physics I course with labs. Prerequisite: one semester introductory calculus course covering the basic principles and methods of integration and differentiation (MTH 111 or equivalent). In the spring semester, first-year students have the first opportunity to enroll. Students are enrolled in the following priority order: first-year students, then second-years, then juniors, then seniors. All upper-class student are wait-listed until first-years have registered. Sections are capped at 28. {N} Credits: 5 
Normally offered both fall and spring semesters 

PHY 118 Introductory Physics II 
Simple harmonic motion, fluids, electricity and magnetisms. Lab experiments are integrated into the in-class lectures, discussions and problem solving activities. Three extended-length classes/week plus a discussion section. Satisfies medical school and engineering requirements for an introductory physics II course with labs. Prerequisite: PHY 117. Enrollment limited to 28. {N} Credits: 5 
Normally offered both fall and spring semesters 

PHY 119 Advanced Introductory Physics 
This course is designed for incoming students who have significant prior calculus-based experience with the topics covered in PHY 117 (Newtonian mechanics) and 118 (electricity and magnetism), but who nevertheless would benefit from a course in introductory physics at the college level. Students will develop their problem-solving, experimental-design, data-analysis, scientific- computing, and communication skills on a variety of more advanced applications of the standard introductory physics topics related to mechanics and E&M. Specific applications may include the physics of the solar system(s), numerical solution of F=ma, the atomic theory of matter, the laws of thermodynamics, electric circuits, and electromagnetic waves. Pre-requisite: one semester introductory calculus course covering the basic principles and methods of integration and differentiation (MTH 111 or equivalent). Enrollment limited to 28. {N} Credits: 5 
Normally offered each fall 

PHY 209 The Big Bang and Beyond 
According to modern science the universe as we know it began expanding about 14 billion years ago from an unimaginably hot, dense fireball. Why was the universe in that particular state? How did the universe get from that state to the way it is today, full of galaxies, stars and planets? What evidence supports this “big bang model”? Throughout this course we focus not simply on what we know about these questions, but also on how we know it and on the limitations of our knowledge. Designed for non-science majors. Enrollment limited to 20. {N} Credits: 4 
Expected to be offered in the next 3 years 

PHY 210 Mathematical Methods of Physical Sciences and Engineering 
This course covers a variety of math topics of particular use to physics and engineering students. Topics include differential equations, complex numbers, Taylor series, linear algebra, Fourier analysis, partial differential equations, and a review of multivariate calculus, with particular focus on physical interpretation and application. Prerequisites: MTH 212 and PHY 117 or PHY 119, or permission of the instructor. Enrollment limit of 30. {M} {N} Credits: 0-4 
Normally offered both fall and spring semesters 

PHY 215 Light, Relativity, and Quantum Physics 
The special theory of relativity; the wave equation and mathematics of waves; optical phenomena of interference and diffraction; particle and wave models of matter and radiation, Bohr model of atomic structure; introduction to fundamental principles and problems in quantum mechanics; introduction to nuclear physics. Prerequisite: PHY 118 or PHY 119 and prior or concurrent enrollment in PHY 210. {N} Credits: 4 
Normally offered each spring 

PHY 240 Electronics 
A semester of experiments in electronics, with emphasis on designing, building and trouble-shooting circuits. Discrete electronic components: physics and applications of diodes and transistors. Analog and digital IC circuits: logic gates, operational amplifiers, timers, counters and displays. Final individual design project. Prerequisite: PHY 117 or PHY119 or permission of the instructor. Priority given to Physics majors and minors, and students planning to major or minor in Physics. Enrollment limit of 14. {N} Credits: 4 
Normally offered each fall 

PHY 300 Physics Pedagogy:  Theory 
A course emphasizing the pedagogy in physics based on Physics Education Research (PER). Readings and discussion emphasize the research literature and strategies for implementing successful and effective methods of teaching physics at the introductory level in the classroom. Permission of the instructor required.  May be repeated once for credit. Prerequisites: PHY 117 or PHY 118 or PHY 119. (E) {N} Credits: 2 
Normally offered both fall and spring semesters 

PHY 301 Physics Pedagogy: Practicum 
A practicum course involving actual classroom experience in implementing methods of teaching based on Physics Education Research (PER). Students have direct interaction with learners in the classroom during group activities, laboratory exercises and problem-solving. PHY300, the theory course based on PER, is a pre requisite/co-requisite. Permission of the instructor required. May be repeated once for credit. Prerequisites: PHY 117 or PHY 118 or PHY 119. (E) {N} Credits: 2 
Normally offered both fall and spring semesters 

PHY 317 Classical Mechanics 
Newtonian dynamics of particles and rigid bodies, oscillations. Prerequisite: PHY 215 or permission of the instructor. {N} Credits: 4 
Normally offered each fall 

PHY 318 Electricity and Magnetism 
Electrostatic and magnetostatic fields in vacuum and in matter, electrodynamics and electromagnetic waves. Prerequisite: PHY 215 or permission of the instructor. {N} Credits: 4 
Normally offered each spring 

PHY 319 Thermal Physics 
Introduction to statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. Prerequisites: PHY 215 or permission of the instructor. {N} Credits: 4 
Normally offered each spring 

PHY 327 Quantum Mechanics 
The formal structure of nonrelativistic quantum mechanics, including operator methods. Wave packets; quantum mechanical scattering and tunneling; central potentials; matrix mechanics of spin, addition of angular momenta; corrections to the hydrogen spectrum; identical particles and exchange symmetry; EPR paradox, Bell’s Theorem and the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Prerequisites: PHY 215 or permission of the instructor. Taking  PHY 317 before PHY 327 is recommended. {N} Credits: 4 

PHY 350 Experimental Physics 
An advanced laboratory course in which students make use of advanced signal recovery methods to design and perform laboratory experiments covering a wide range of topics in modern physics. Available experimental modules include pulsed and CW NMR, optical pumping of atoms, single photon quantum interference, magneto-optical polarization, the Franck-Hertz experiment and the Hall effect. Experimental methods include signal averaging, filtering, modulation techniques and phase-sensitive detection. Students select up to four extended experiments per semester, planning their experiment, preparing equipment, performing measurements, analyzing data and presenting written and/or oral reports. Each module counts for 1 credit. Prerequisites: PHY 215 and PHY 240 or permission of the instructor. May be repeated for credit up to a maximum of 8 credits. Enrollment limited to 8 per lab section. (E) {N} Credits: 4 
Normally offered each spring 

PHY 360 Advanced Topics in Physics 
Selected special topics that vary from year to year; typically some subset of the following: climate physics, cosmology, general relativity, nuclear and particle physics, optics, solid state physics. Prerequisites vary with the topics of the course. 

Computational Physics 
Computational physics in a computer laboratory setting. Numerical techniques and simulations of a variety of physical systems taught concurrently with programming skills using languages such as Mathematica, Python or Matlab. No prior programming experience required. Pre-requisites: PHY 215, or permission of the instructor. {N} Credits: 4 
Expected to be offered in the next 3 years 

General Relativity 
This course will cover the basics of general relativity. We will discuss tensors and metric spaces and re-frame special relativity in those terms. We will then generalize the rules of special relativity to non-inertial frames, and use the equivalence principle to extend those ideas to spaces with gravitational fields. We will explore “Einstein’s equation” relating matter and geometry. Finally, we will discuss basic applications, including black holes, gravitational waves, and cosmology. Prerequisites: PHY210 and PHY215, or permission of the instructor.  {N} Credits: 4 
Expected to be offered in the next 3 years 

An introduction to the structure and history of the universe. Topics include the big bang model, inflation and the early universe, dark matter and dark energy, accelerated expansion and the possible futures of the universe and multiverse theories. The course also introduces some of the basic conceptual ideas behind general relativity and their application to cosmology. Prerequisites: PHY 210 and PHY 215, or permission of the instructor. {N} Credits: 4 
Expected to be offered in the next 3 years 

Climate Physics 
Our planet's climate is strongly influenced by atmospheric composition, and changes in this composition are leading to climate change. This course provides a detailed investigation of the physical mechanisms controlling climate change by introducing and weaving together applications of basic thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics to planetary climate. In addition to solving analytical models, students will also learn how to construct  and apply computational models of the Earth's climate. Prerequisites: PHY 215, or permission of instructor. {N} Credits: 4 
Expected to be offered in the next 3 years 

PHY 410 Capstone Physics 
This course is intended to give students who plan to continue in graduate school with the study of physics (or a related discipline) an opportunity to synthesize bodies of knowledge from the different sub-disciplines of physics. Administering of GRE practice exams will be used as an assessment tool of this understanding and of relevant analytical skills needed for problem-solving. {N} Credits: 1 
Expected to be offered in the next 3 years 

PHY 432D Honors Project 
This is a full-year course. Credits: 4 
Normally offered both fall and spring semesters 

PHY 400 Special Studies 
By permission of the department. Credits: 1-4 
Normally offered each academic year


The physics faculty do experimental, theoretical and computational research in collaboration with students on a wide variety of topics within physics: cosmology, optics, granular matter, high-speed video capture, quantum magnetism, cold atom physics and solar energy. Students can start working with Smith faculty on research projects starting their very first year. Smith physics majors regularly present their research results at conferences and in published articles in leading scientific journals. In the last decade we’ve supervised more than 100 research students. So come on and join us!

You are always welcome to connect with faculty and find out more about their research and projects. There are opportunities to conduct research during the semester and over the summers supported by individual faculty grants or Clark Science Center research funds. Students can work on research for special studies course credit or they can choose to do a senior honors thesis. Please see the requirements section above for more information on the honors thesis.

See individual faculty bios for more information on their work, and below is a slideshow offering a quick summary of the physics faculty's fields of research.

View a slideshow of faculty research.

Alumnae Spotlight

Alumnae have used their physics undergraduate degree as a springboard to a wide range of careers. About 50 percent of alumnae go on to graduate school in physics or allied fields, such as biophysics, computer science, engineering and material science. Several follow an academic path in research and teaching positions at universities and colleges.

Our majors have an increasing interest in becoming high school teachers. Our introduction of an education track in the major facilitates this career direction. Others have had interesting and diverse career paths in national research labs, R&D in industry, in nonprofit organizations and in corporate and intellectual property law. We have successful entrepreneurs, too.

View a slideshow of alumnae profiles.

Photo of Melissa Eblen-Zayas

Melissa Eblen-Zayas ’99

  • Ph.D. in physics from University of Minnesota
  • Chair of physics and astronomy at Carleton College 2012–16
  • Director of the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching at Carleton


Photo of A. Stevie Bergman

A. Stevie Bergman ’09

  • Co-founded GirlTech, a science camp for Ugandan girls
  • Fulbright fellowship in Indonesia, studying theoretical high energy physics
  • Worked on the Pixel Detector in ATLAs at CERN
  • Ph.D. from Princeton University in observational cosmology

Photo of Isabel Lipartito

Isabel Lipartito ’15

  • Astrophysics graduate student at UC Santa Barbara
  • NSF graduate fellow
  • Researching Microwave Kinetic Inductor Detector-based instruments for high-contrast astronomy
  • President of Women in Physics at UCSB

A Message from the Smith College Physics Department

We endorse and commit to Black Lives Matter. On June 10, 2020 the physics department participated in the STEM strike for Black Lives, and we plan to continue our commitment to educating ourselves. We encourage our current students and alumnae to join us. As a start, we suggest the following three links: 

  1. The Time is Now: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy
  2. National Society of Black Physicists
  3. Educational pathways of Black women physicists: Stories of experiencing and overcoming obstacles in life, Katemari Rosa and Felicia Moore Mensah, Physical Review: Physics Education Research 12 (2016) 020113

Additional links and resources are available at

Physics in Action

Physics is fun, and it shows! Watch sample videos from around the department: from classrooms, faculty presentations, demonstrations or other department events.


Department of Physics

McConnell Hall
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063

Phone: 413-585-3349
Fax: 413-585-3786

Current Chair: Nathanael Fortune