About the Undergraduate Program in Physics
What is Physics?
The Physics Department at Washington University in St. Louis is a national and international leader in research and innovation. Undergraduate students are invited to gain an expert understanding of modern physics, to gain hands-on experience in research and development, and to participate in one of the most exciting intellectual enterprises of the twenty-first century: to gain a detailed understanding of the inner workings of the world in which we live and the Universe. Physics is the discipline that deals with the most fundamental aspects of our universe, such as the properties of atoms, nuclei and elementary particles, the nature of the forces between them, and the collective behavior of atoms in solids, liquids and gases. It deals with the entire universe, from its birth to its ultimate fate. At the same time, physics provides the tools that help us to understand extremely complex, everyday things, such as the behavior of sand piles, the strength of materials, or processes in the brain.
What Good is Physics?
Discoveries in physics surely deepen our intrinsic understanding of the universe, of its governing laws, of its contents and its history. The impact of physics and physicists outside the field has been equally important. Some examples:
- NMR imaging -- a standard diagnostic tool in hospitals under the name MRI; was derived from physicists' techniques for studying nuclear and atomic structure.
- The Global Positioning System -- a multi-billion dollar industry in accurate commercial and military navigation; uses atomic clocks, developed by physicists, and relativity theory, developed by Einstein.
- The World Wide Web -- who doesn't know what it is; developed by particle physicists at CERN who needed a way to transmit data from accelerators to the home universities of the researchers.
- The structure of DNA -- co-discovered by a physicist.
One of the exciting things about physics is its unpredictability: most new discoveries are totally unexpected. Also, the discoveries in ''basic'' physics of one generation usually have unexpected practical consequences in the next, as the examples above show.
What Good is a Bachelor's Degree in Physics?
An undergraduate degree in physics will provide you with the skills to pursue a wide variety of careers, and many people find the subject so fascinating that they go on to pursue Masters or PhD degrees. Physics bachelors graduates who choose to go straight into full-time employment readily find jobs in industry. Five years after obtaining their degrees, physics graduates have careers in diverse fields including basic and applied research in academia and industry, development of computer platforms and computer software, management, education, and R&D for the military. Our programs are designed to give you, in addition to the fundamentals of physics, a broad range of skills in laboratory techniques, critical thinking, computer use, and teamwork, which will serve you well in your chosen career.
What Are the Strengths of the Physics Department?
The Physics Department at Washington University is a medium-size department with nationally and internationally renown research groups in the fields of astroparticle physics, condensed matter physics and materials, biophysics and medical physics, nuclear physics, and particle physics. The department presently offers a major and minor in Physics, and a minor in Biophysics. Undergraduate students have the possibility to enroll in a large number of specialized courses and to actively participate in the cutting-edge research carried through at the department.