Introductory Physics Courses


The Department of Physics offers three sequences of introductory calculus-based courses. The first course in each sequence focuses on "mechanics" which concerns the physical laws that govern the motion of point particles and of rigid macroscopic objects, with some related material on waves, oscillations, thermodynamics, and fluid dynamics. The second course in each sequence concerns electrical and magnetic phenomenon with some material on properties of light (interference, diffraction, lenses, and mirrors). All course sequences have a required laboratory and recitation. Each sequence covers similar topics but with different emphases for different groups.

Each sequence fulfills the requirements for physics and biophysics majors (although Physics 161/161L and 162/162L are the recommended courses for potential majors), each satisfies the prerequisite physics requirements for majors other than physics and biophysics, and each fulfills the introductory physics requirements for professional and graduate schools.

For Majors: Physics 161/161L and 162/162L

The sequence PHY 161/161L (Fundamentals of Physics I) and PHY 162/162L (Fundamentals of Physics II) is intended for students who might choose physics or biophysics as a major or minor, or who like science and math enough to want a more in-depth introduction to physics. Although most students who take the 161/162 sequence have seen some physics in high school, a prior course in physics is not necessary. However, a solid working knowledge of high school math is important: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, precalculus, and calculus. If you have concerns about your math or math background, please talk with the Director of Undergraduate Studies or with the Physics 161/161L or 162/162L instructor before the course begins.  

PHY 161/161L is only offered in the fall semester and PHY 162/162L is only offered in the spring.  Note that for this sequence, the lab components 161L and 162L are separate courses that must be taken concurrently with 161 and 162 respectively.

The 161/161L/162/162L sequence differs from the other introductory sequences (141/142, 151/152/153) in three ways. First 161 and 162 offer a small classroom experience---about 30 students each semester---versus the hundreds of students that take 141/142 and 151/152. The small class allows students and the professor to get to know each other well, which encourage discussion and collaboration, and more creative and interesting labs.

Second, Physics 161/161L and 162/162L mention interesting and deeper insights about what is understood about why the laws of nature have the form that they do, or how experiments and theory point to questions that are not yet understood. Physics 161/161L and 162/162L will discuss connections of the material to later physics courses, and to various frontiers of science, including research currently being carried out by various professors at Duke.

Third, 161/161L and 162/162L differ from the other introductory courses by giving somewhat more derivations of key equations, usually in the context of clarifying why key equations have the form they do, say because of mathematical symmetries or conservation laws.

 Note: if you are a freshman thinking of majoring in physics or biophysics and have had some advanced physics in high school (e.g., an AP or IB physics course), it may make sense to skip one or more of the intro physics courses. Please make an appointment with the Physics Director of Undergraduate Studies to discuss this possibility as soon as you arrive on campus. Roughly speaking, if you have a strong background in mechanics but not such a strong background in electrodynamics, you should take Physics 162/162L. If you have a strong background in both mechanics and electrodynamics (say a score of 5 on both AP Physics C exams), then taking Physics 153L ("Applications of Physics: A Modern Perspective") might be a good choice.

 For most freshmen, it is useful to take at least one intro physics course before sophomore year (to gain college-level problem solving skills), and it is important to build up math skills, by taking multivariate calculus (Math 212) no later than the spring semester of their freshman year.

For Engineers: Physics 151L, 152L, and 153L

The three semester sequence PHY 151L ("Introductory Mechanics"), PHY 152L ("Electricity, Magnetism and Optics") and PHY 153L ("Applications of Physics: A Modern Perspective") is intended mainly for engineering students. Normally engineering students without AP credits take PHY 151L and 152L. Students with full AP credits take 153L. The 151/152/153 sequence differs from the other introductory physics courses by using the Matlab programming environment for homework assignments and by emphasizing applications of physics (often to engineering) rather than derivations of key equations.

For Other Students: Physics 141L and 142L

The Physics 141L ("General Physics I: Mechanics") and Physics 142L ("General Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism") sequence is intended for students who are taking calculus for the first time or who are not planning to major in physics or engineering. About three quarters of 141L/142L students are interested in the life sciences (for example, biology, psychology, and neurobiology), and many of these students in turn are premeds. The remaining quarter is a mix of students from chemistry, environmental science, mathematics, computer science, and other disciplines.

The 141L and 142L courses differ from the other introductory physics courses primarily by emphasizing examples and applications over derivations. Some instructors do discuss examples related to the life sciences but students should understand that 141L and 142L are physics courses first, with the goal of giving students a broad and useful understanding of the principles and applications of physics. The sequence does cover most physics topics of the MCAT exam, although often in greater detail and with deeper insight than what is required for the MCAT.

Tutors for Introductory Physics

All the introductory physics courses can be challenging: it is important for a student not to fall behind (a lot of material is covered each week and one week builds on the previous week) and to get help earlier than later. All students taking physics courses are encouraged to meet with their instructor or teaching assistant (TA) if they have any questions about the course material or assignments. The Department also holds evening help sessions that students in any intro physics course can attend.

For those who want one-on-one tutoring, some free tutoring is available through Duke's Peer Tutoring Program, but this is limited to 12 hours per semester and there is sometimes not enough tutors to satisfy the demand. The Physics Department also keeps a list of tutors. You contact these people directly and the fee is set by the individual tutor.