Skip to main content

Charting New Horizons: A First-Year’s Exploration of Physics at Carleton

George P. walks through his experience as first-year Physics student.

George P. walks through his experience as first-year Physics student.

When I got to Carleton, I had no clue what I wanted to major in. Thankfully, you don’t have to declare your major until the end of your sophomore year so we all have plenty of time to decide. As I near the end of my first year in Northfield, I’m still undecided but leaning towards Physics. Today I will write about my experience in my first Physics classes here at Carleton.

PHYS 144: Astrophysical Systems, Mechanics, and Relativity

For my intro class I took PHYS 144, a class for people with a background in high school calculus-based physics. Intro Physics classes here at Carleton are notoriously difficult, and this class did not disappoint. We spent the first half of the term working with Mechanical Systems, mostly digging into Newton’s Laws and how we can see them in our daily life. The second half of the course was Relativity, which was absolutely fascinating. Relativity is the study of how our universe works between different frames of reference at cosmic speeds. Relativistic Thinking was completely new to me, making this part of the course incredibly fascinating and thought-provoking. The labs in this class were also super interesting, From calculating the speed of light with microwaved chocolate chips to visualizing the connection between Magnetic and Electric fields.

What a beautiful spreadsheet!

PHYS 234: Computer Programs of Complex Physical Systems

Right now, I am taking an elective physics course where we learn how to use the coding language Mathematica to measure physical systems. This class only has the prereq of taking an into Physics class, meaning no coding background is necessary. In the first few weeks we have been learning about “Random Walks” and fascinating gambling fallacies (never go to a casino, you will lose). This class has not only been great about teaching me applications of modern Physics as well as learning how to code. This course culminates in an extensive model of an Eden Growth function, meaning a random expansive physical system. In the past, people have made models of wildfires, avalanches, traffic flow, and even the spread of rumors. For my final project, I may combine my interest in farming with physics by modeling a weed growth expansion.

Thoughts on the color combination?

PHYS 123: What Physicists Do

This term I am taking a one-credit course where Carleton Physics alumni come in once a week to talk about what they have done with their Carleton degrees. Surprisingly, not most Carleton Physics alumni don’t have careers directly related to Physics, but they use the quantitative reasoning skills obtained here in their daily lives. So far, we have heard from a recent graduate who works with sustainable architecture and an evolutionary biologist. My favorite speech was the evolutionary biologist who is using the same random walk process from PHYS 234 in his models of mutation. To pass this class, you only need to show up to the speeches and write a one-page response, making this an easy course to add onto the typical three courses that Carls take every trimester.

Great Speech from 2012 graduate Rebecca Riss

Physics Resources

Physics classes at Carleton are definitely difficult, but they offer a lot of opportunities to get help if you need. All the professors are incredible and love to help out at office hours! We also have PSF sessions, with Problem Solving Facilitators (upperclassmen who have done well in the 100 and 200 level classes). The PSFs have answer keys to all of the homework but they make sure to first help you solve the problem yourself. It’s really impressive how much you can learn from your peers!

Ground State
Hard at work with Max!

The Physics Department

The Physics Department is a really welcoming and positive environment. The department has traditions such as the graduating seniors “Random Wok” (a wok dish made with random ingredients, or the declaring majors “smashing the atom” every Spring. You will always see students working together on problems, the collaboration in this department is definitely my favorite part so far. I also love the Ground State (read more about it in my favorite study spots blog). I’d strongly recommend trying out an intro physics class for any incoming freshman, everyone should meet the department!

George P. (he/him) is a first-year student interested in studying Geology, Religion, and Physics. George is a native of Western Massachusetts and can’t wait to explore everything Minnesota has to offer! George’s passions include Karls frisbee, flannels, CANOE trips, and root vegetables. George also serves as a Class of 2027 Representative and next summer he will be staying at Carleton to work as an intern on the Student Organic Farm.