Sell Us Your Major: Physics

This column is devoted to sharing student and faculty input on the various majors offered at Lawrence. The goal is to highlight areas of study that are not well known and to provide undecided students an inside look at things they may want to study.

While the natural sciences are relatively well-established majors at any given university, the unique approaches that Lawrence takes towards these particularly vast subjects make them fair game for this column. With the structure of the major and the amazing independent research projects done by students on campus, physics at Lawrence is not something that can be brushed aside.

Physics is a multi-faceted field concerning the study of the natural world. While physics can cover many topics including motion, energy and forces, it can be generalized under two broader approaches: theoretical and experimental.

Associate Professor of Physics and  department chair Doug Martin explained this in more detail. “There are two pieces in particular to this study. The first is the search for the fundamental theories which describe how the universe works—theories like gravity and quantum mechanics. The second is the application of these theories to predict and explain phenomena around us, from building LED displays to the expansion of the universe to the flow of water in the Fox River.”

Though physics is not necessarily a traditional field of study in a liberal arts sense, the department encompasses the ideas of astronomy and geometry which are two of the seven classical liberal arts. Martin was also quick to cite the Lawrence mission statement when he said, “More contemporarily, Lawrence is ‘devoted to […] the pursuit of knowledge and understanding’, according to the university’s mission statement. Physics is one important way of understanding the world around us.”

The Physics Department at Lawrence offers a great amount of opportunities to students. They boast a list of major requirements that fulfill almost all of the requirements for Lawrence’s 3-2 engineering program. They also welcome students with strong interests in other natural sciences such as biology, chemistry and geology to construct unique, interdisciplinary majors that center around physics and one of the three secondary interests.

“The best thing for me is having a staff that is really dedicated to what they do,” said fifth-year physics major Albert Marshall, “and it shows in their classes. I think it’s hard to learn in an environment where the person teaching really has no interest to teach the material. At Lawrence there is no shortage of people who love what they do!”

Physics is also one of the few departments that engages directly with high school students interested in studying physics when they go to college. This year, the thirty-first annual Lawrence Physics Workshop will take place in late February. The workshop is designed for high school seniors to spend some time on campus and engage with students and faculty in the Physics Department. Simulating planet formation in the early solar system and making holograms are some of the projects that will be at the workshop this year. These workshop projects seem to be fascinating on their own, but pale in comparison to the work that students do while at Lawrence and beyond.

While at Lawrence, students can expect to do some large physical projects such as building trebuchets, soccer-ball testers and wind-tunnels, as well as theoretically-challenging projects like a gravitational lens simulator and an electronic neuron and synapse.

“This summer I worked on developing a method of determining the temperature of a specific kind of plasma,” Marshall explained. “My senior research project is my attempt to do the same thing, but by using another method. My first interest actually sparked with my summer research. I decided that I liked it enough that I would try and continue it in some shape or form. What better way than my senior experience.”

Beyond Lawrence, students have been able to accomplish things such as building a telepresence robot, designing a wireless electricity transmitting system and becoming president of the Optical Society of America.

“I love physics,” Martin said, “and I’m delighted to try and bring that enthusiasm to the students I’m teaching every term.  One of the most enjoyable things about physics is how connected the discipline is.  Every class, and really every part of the discipline, has an important role to play.”

Martin’s enthusiasm for physics goes beyond just the students he already has. His advice for students who may be considering a major in physics comes in three parts. “First, get started as soon as possible,” Martin stated “Second, don’t forget to take calculus. Finally, just come talk with any of us in the Physics Department.”
“I think just like any major: you really have to want it.” Marshall advised to students considering physics as a major, “Just like any major there will be hurdles that seem too high to get over. Physics is going to have those hurdles, along with some valleys thrown in as well. As long as you remember that other people have had to face those challenges and made it through, you can as well.”

The Physics Department at Lawrence overall is one of the most expansive majors on campus. It offers its fair share of flexibility to any students that are interested in physics and even multi-interested students. While it’s heavy emphasis on the theoretical aspect and mathematics may be intimidating to some, the department has a brilliant network of faculty that are fully dedicated to helping students achieve the most they can get from studying physics.