Courses of Study 2022-2023 
    May 24, 2024  
Courses of Study 2022-2023 [ARCHIVED CATALOG]


In the College of Arts and Sciences .

Course Offerings  

The concepts and methods of physics have an impact on nearly all areas of human endeavor. Thus, the Department of Physics offers courses in physics for the entire Cornell community. There are general education courses for nonscientists, well-designed introductory sequences for science and engineering majors, more advanced courses for physics majors, and rigorous programs of graduate study, up to doctoral-level independent research. We offer both a Major and Minor in physics, and encourage students to customize their program.

Undergraduate and graduate students benefit from an outstanding faculty and world-class research facilities in the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics (LASSP) and the Laboratory of Elementary Particle Physics (LEPP). Physics faculty members and students conduct research in condensed-matter physics, nanophysics, biophysics, atomic physics, X-ray physics, high-energy particle physics, accelerator physics, classical and quantum gravity, cosmology, and astrophysics. Students are invited to attend weekly research seminars and colloquia that showcase the work of the national and international physics communities. Undergraduates are encouraged to participate in research, and many find summer employment within the department.



D.C. Ralph, chair; T.A. Arias, director of undergraduate studies (; M.U. Liepe, director of graduate studies (; J.P. Alexander, J. Baker, I. Bazarov, G. Case, D. Chowdhury, I. Cohen, A. Crites, C. Csaki, V. Elser, E. Flanagan, C.P. Franck, R. Fulbright, A. Giambattista, L.K. Gibbons, P. Ginsparg, Y. Grossman, T. Hartman, G. Hoffstaetter, N. Holmes, C.-M. Jian, E.-A. Kim, N.J. Kim, P. Krasicky, A. LeClair, K.F. Mak, J. Maxson, L. McAllister, P.L. McEuen, E. Mueller, M. Niemack, K. Nowack, J. Parpia, J.R. Patterson, M. Perelstein, B. Ramshaw, A. Ryd, J.P. Sethna, J. Shan, K. M. Shen, N. Taylor, J. Thom-Levy, R. Thorne, J. Wang, M. D. Wang, I. Wasserman, P. Wittich

The Physics Major: Two Routes to a Promising Future:

The analytical and problem-solving skills and the fundamental conceptual and practical understanding of how the world works provided by an education in physics have allowed physics majors to pursue careers—and have major impacts—not just in physics, but in engineering, education, medicine and the life sciences, the military services, computer and information sciences, earth and environmental sciences, law, finance and economics, management consulting, philosophy of science, forensics, and public policy. Reflecting this breadth of opportunity, the Physics Department offers two approaches to the major:

  1. The concentration within physics (“inside concentration”) is the principal path to professional or graduate work in physics and closely related fields, and is also the best choice for students who wish to obtain maximum benefit from rigorous studies in physics. The inside concentration consists of the core physics courses plus electives taken within the Physics Department.
  2. The concentration outside physics (“outside concentration”) provides more flexibility for those wanting to develop skills in physics but whose career interests lie elsewhere. For example, a premedical or biophysics student might concentrate in biology; a pre-law student might concentrate in business, history, or public policy; and a student planning graduate work in econometrics or on pursuing an M.B.A. might concentrate in economics. Students interested in education careers, and in capitalizing on the critical national shortage of high school physics teachers, may concentrate in education.

Physics majors—especially those concentrating within physics—are advised to start the introductory physics sequence in the first semester of their first year, as a delayed start can reduce flexibility in future course scheduling. We strongly encourage prospective physics majors with AP credit in Physics to forfeit their AP credit and begin with PHYS 1116 . Students who switch to the physics major after taking introductory physics in their sophomore year can usually still complete an outside concentration. Students may apply to join the physics major after completing two full semesters of physics courses at Cornell, together with the appropriate mathematics prerequisites. In order to join the major, students must have at least an average grade of B- in their Cornell physics and math courses, and have no physics or math grades lower than C-. Prospective physics majors with any physics grades lower than B- should as soon as possible meet with the director of undergraduate studies to discuss their preparation. Grades of at least C- (or S for S-U only courses) are required in all courses counting toward the physics major.


Prospective majors are urged to meet with the Physics director of undergraduate studies for advice on advanced placement credit and on program planning. Based on their specific interests, students will be matched with a major advisor by the director of undergraduate studies. The student and major advisor will then work out the details of the major course program.

Achieving success in a physics course is easier if you have the proper preparation. Each physics course description lists prerequisite courses that develop mastery in the needed mathematics and physics. Students who wish to enroll in a course but lack the listed prerequisites may be able to succeed with an appropriate work plan, especially if they have other relevant prior experience. These students must discuss their preparation with the course instructor and with their advisor before enrolling.

Requirements for the Physics Major:

Note: In addition to the major requirements outlined below, all students must meet the college graduation requirements .

The Physics Core—All physics majors must complete a core of physics courses (a minimum of 45 credits) and mathematics courses (16 credits), as follows:

A three-semester introductory physics sequence:


Students may freely switch between classes in either sequence (using the electronic add/drop form from their college) up until the end of the 7th week without petition. Students from life/chemical/health sciences backgrounds who decide to switch into the physics major may also use PHYS 2207  as their introductory mechanics class. Students who do not take PHYS 1116  must also complete PHYS 2216 .

Two introductory lab courses:

Mathematics courses covering single and multivariable calculus, linear algebra, series representations, and complex analysis:


Inside concentrators should complete at least two semesters of advanced mathematics classes at the 3000+ level such as the AEP 3200  & AEP 4200  sequence, or other relevant classes.

Courses designated with * are recommended for physics majors.

Five upper-level courses beyond the three-semester introductory sequence, consisting of:

Additional Requirements:

In addition to the core, each physics major must complete at least 15 credits in an area of concentration that has been agreed upon by the student and major faculty advisor consistent with the following guidelines.

Concentration “inside” Physics:

Students planning professional or graduate work in physics are encouraged to take the more advanced and analytically rigorous versions of the core courses—PHYS 1116 , PHYS 2217 , and PHYS 2218 . Students with less high school preparation may start in PHYS 1112  and then switch to the advanced sequence in later semesters. Students with strong backgrounds, who may have advanced placement credit for PHYS 1112  and/or PHYS 2213 , are very strongly encouraged to start with PHYS 1116 .

For a concentration within physics, the minimum 15 credits beyond the core must be composed of physics courses with numbers greater than 3000 or other courses approved by the director of undergraduate studies (for example, ASTRO 4431 ASTRO 4432 , or AEP 4340 ). These 15 credits must include PHYS 4230  as well as the senior laboratory course PHYS 4410  in addition to one of the lab courses listed for the core, so that a physics concentration requires a minimum of 7 credits of laboratory work. The sequence followed by each student will depend upon his or her interests and precollege preparation, and will be determined in consultation with the major advisor. Students are advised to strongly consider also taking PHYS 4443 . Majors are strongly encouraged to participate in the department’s research activities. If this activity is done as an independent project, PHYS 4490 , up to 4 credits can be applied toward the concentration.

Concentration “outside” Physics:

For outside concentrations, the courses to be counted in the minimum 15 credit hours beyond the core must have internal coherence and lead to mastery in the area of concentration. The course sequence must be worked out with and approved by the major faculty advisor. At least 8 of the 15 credit hours must be in courses numbered above 3000. Past areas of concentration include astronomy, business, chemical physics, computer science, econometrics, education, English, geophysics, history, and philosophy, law, meteorology, and public policy. A combined biology/chemistry concentration is common for premedical students or those who wish to prepare for work in biophysics.

The department particularly wishes to encourage students with an interest in science education. Information about the education can be obtained from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Education Minor, from the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, or from the Physics director of undergraduate studies.

The core for students with outside concentrations may follow either PHYS 1112 PHYS 2213 PHYS 2214  or the advanced PHYS 1116 PHYS 2217 PHYS 2218 . Students concentrating in astronomy who might continue on to graduate school in that field are encouraged to include ASTRO 4410 , ASTRO 4431 , and ASTRO 4432  within the concentration.


A student may be granted honors in physics upon the recommendation of the Physics Advisors Committee of the physics faculty. There is no particular course structure or thesis requirement for honors.

Double Majors:

Students are welcome to pursue a physics major concurrently with another major; either in the college of Arts and Sciences or in another college through the concurrent degree program. No course used to satisfy a requirement of another major can simultaneously be used toward satisfying the outside concentration for the physics major. An outside concentration may not be in the same subject as that of a second major.

Typical Physics Course Sequence:

Students with a score of 4 or higher on AP calculus BC are advised to begin physics in their first semester.  Students eligible for AP physics credit are generally advised to forfeit their credit and instead take the more challenging PHYS 1116 - Physics I: Mechanics and Special Relativity .

While there is great variability in course sequences, a typical example would be:

Fall First-Year: PHYS 1112  or PHYS 1116 PHYS 1110 ; MATH 1920  or MATH 2220 .

Spring First-Year: PHYS 2213  or PHYS 2217 ; MATH 2930 ; PHYS 2216  – only if student has not taken PHYS 1116 .

Fall Sophomore: PHYS 2214  or PHYS 2218 ;PHYS 2210 ; MATH 2940  or MATH 2210 .

Spring Sophomore: PHYS 3316 PHYS 3318 . Inside concentrators typically take AEP 3200 .

Fall Junior:  PHYS 3330  or PHYS 3360  or alternative PHYS 3327 ; inside concentrators typically take AEP 4200 .

Spring Junior: concentration elective(s).

Fall Senior: PHYS 3317 ; concentration elective(s).

Spring Senior: concentration elective(s).

Students should consult with their advisor about their concentration electives—inside concentrators often take PHYS 4443  in the spring of their junior year in order to maximize their options during their senior year.  

Crossovers between the sequences PHYS 1112 -PHYS 2213 -PHYS 2214  and PHYS 1116 -PHYS 2217 -PHYS 2218  are possible.

Courses for Non-Physics Majors:

Students may obtain advanced placement credit and transfer credit for physics courses taken elsewhere. Students seeking transfer credit should read the instructions at Students seeking advice on the use of AP credit should consult with the director of undergraduate studies.

Note: In addition to the major requirements outlined below, all students must meet the college graduation requirements . 

The Physics Minor:

Non-physics majors in all Cornell colleges are eligible to earn a Physics minor. To apply to the Physics Minor, visit the Director of Undergraduate studies during office hours or contact to schedule an appointment.

Admission to the minor requires:

  1. B- or better in two of the introductory physics courses (see introductory sequence below)
  2. B- or better in two of the mathematics courses which are listed as prerequisites for those courses.

To earn a minor in physics, a student must:

Complete the following course sequences, with a minimum grade of C-:

Introductory sequence with special relativity:

This requires one course out of each of the following four categories:

  1. a calculus-based introductory mechanics course (PHYS 2207 , PHYS 1112 , or PHYS 1116 *)

  2. a special relativity course (PHYS 2216 * or PHYS 1116 *)
  3. a calculus-based introductory electromagnetism course (PHYS 2208 , PHYS 2213 , or PHYS 2217 )
  4. a course on waves (PHYS 2214  or PHYS 2218 )

*PHYS 1116  may be used to satisfy both requirements (1) and (2).

Students are encouraged to talk with a physics advisor to discuss which sequence is most appropriate for them.

At least 3 physics courses, totaling 9 or more credits at the 3000-level or above:

  1. Quantum Mechanics (PHYS 3316 *) is required
  2. a lab course such as PHYS 3310  , PHYS 3330 , PHYS 3360 ASTRO 4410  is required.

*Students with credit for another quantum mechanics class (such as AEP 3610 , CHEM 2870 -CHEM 3880  or ECE 4060 ) may substitute a different upper-level physics course for PHYS 3316 .

Additional Stipulations:

  1. With the exception of ASTRO 4410 , all courses must be taken in the physics department.
  2. Students in majors that require physics courses at the 3000 level or higher, such as Applied and Engineering Physics, Astronomy, or Mathematics, may not use courses to satisfy both their major and minor requirement.