Why take courses in this discipline?

Physics at Grinnell offers a rigorous curriculum combined with a supportive community of faculty and students. Our courses teach the concepts, laws, and methods needed to understand and predict the workings of the physical universe. You simultaneously develop your experimental, computational, and statistical skills in our well-equipped laboratories. As you progress through our curriculum, you will be exposed to new research results through our weekly seminar series. You can bring your own creativity to bear on such questions through research projects, both on and off campus, as well as internships. Physics also supports a 3-2 program in engineering and offers exceptional opportunities and facilities in astronomy. A study of physics prepares you for graduate study in related areas, as well as for work in many technical fields.

How does this discipline contribute to the liberal arts?

Physics teaches experimental, computational, and analytical methods typical of the natural sciences, through which students develop quantitative reasoning skills.

What kinds of questions are asked in this discipline?

Questions in physics touch on a broad range of phenomena in the physical universe. Some questions are theoretical (How does quantum mechanics work in a gravitational field?). Some are computational (How do galaxies evolve?). Some are experimental (What is dark matter, and how do we detect it?).

How does a student get started?

The physics major is designed so that students following the physics curriculum need not decide between physics and mathematics majors until registration for the fourth semester.

The physics major curriculum is highly structured, and the first four courses in this curriculum have specific mathematics pre- and co-requisites. Thus prospective physics majors should take both physics and mathematics courses in the first year. Most physics majors begin with PHY 131 (General Physics I) and MAT 131 (Calculus I), including students with AP Physics 1 or 2, or IB Physics (which do not count toward the physics major).

Students with AP Physics C-Mechanics credits and math placement beyond MAT 131 may begin in PHY 132 (General Physics II) and MAT 133 (Calculus II). Students with AP Physics C-E&M credits and math placement beyond MAT 133 may start in PHY 232 (Modern Physics) and MAT 215 (Linear Algebra). The physics faculty can help determine the appropriate placement for a student.

While General Physics is the preferred first course for a prospective science major, a prospective humanities or social studies major may prefer an interdisciplinary course, such as How to Learn Physics (PHY/EDU 115); Physics in the Arts (PHY 109); The Universe and Its Structure (PHY 116); and Bridges, Towers, and Skyscrapers (PHY 180). These courses do not count toward the physics major, but they offer excellent opportunities to learn physics (and how the universe works) for students who do not intend to major in the sciences.

AP/IB Credit

Students who received a score of 4 or 5 on the AP Physics 1 or AP Physics 2 exam, or a 5 on the IB Physics exam, receive four credits in the science division, though they do not count for major credit. A score of 4 or 5 on the Physics C-Mechanics AP exam counts as credit for PHY-131. A score of 4 or 5 on the Physics C-E &M AP Exam counts as PHY-132.

Courses in Physics

All courses in physics

Regularly Offered 200-Level Courses

  • Electronics
  • Modern Physics
  • Mechanics

Regularly Offered 300- and 400-Level Courses

  • Thermodynamics and Statistical Physics
  • Topics in Astrophysics
  • Electromagnetic Theory
  • Optics Wave Phenomena
  • Introduction to Quantum Theory
  • Advanced Quantum Theory
  • Advanced Laboratory 

Sample Four-Year Plans for a Physics Major

Scenario 1
Year Fall Spring
First PHY 131*
MAT 131*
PHY 132*
MAT 133*
Second PHY 232*
MAT 215*
PHY 234*
MAT 220*
Third PHY 335* PHY 337*
Fourth PHY 456 PHY 314
PHY 462*
Scenario 2



First MAT 131* PHY 131*
MAT 133*
Second PHY 132*
MAT 215*
PHY 234*
MAT 220*
Third PHY 232*
PHY 335*
PHY 337*
Fourth PHY 456 PHY 314
PHY 462*

* required course

Off-Campus Study

The physics department encourages students to study abroad and will adjust prerequisites as needed to enable students to complete the major. It is often possible to take a physics course abroad. The department recommends that students prioritize courses that can capitalize on the unique opportunities offered by the study-abroad site, both within and outside the field of physics. We additionally encourage them to consider other global learning opportunities that dovetail with their academic goals and interests, such as applying for summer research internship programs abroad. Interested students should consult with physics faculty early to discuss their off-campus study plans.

Contributions to Other Majors/Concentrations

Courses in physics can count toward the general science major. General Physics I (PHY 131) and General Physics II (PHY 132) are recommended for biology majors and required for biological chemistry and chemistry majors.

Department Events and Opportunities

Weekly seminars, research opportunities

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