Go to m.barnard.edu for the Mobile Barnard web app or download it from the App Store or Google Play.

Physics & Astronomy

504A Altschul Hall
Department Administrative Assistant: Molly Gill

Chair: Timothy Halpin-Healy (Ann Whitney Olin Professor) - Chair for 2012 Fall Semester, Laura Kay (Ann Whitney Olin Professor)
Professors: Reshmi Mukherjee (Helen Goodhart Altschul Professor)
Associate Professor: Janna Levin
Lab Director: Stiliana Savin

Other officers of the University offering courses listed below:

Professors: James Applegate, Norman Christ, Brian Cole, Arlin Crotts, Charles Hailey, Jules Halpern, Tony Heinz, David Helfand, Robert Mawhinney, John Parsons, Frederik Paerels, Joseph Patterson, Mike Shaecitz, Michael Tuts, Jacqueline van Gorkom, William Zajc
Associate Professors: Greg Bryan, Zoltan Haiman, Kathryn Johnson, Kristen Menou, David Schiminovich
Adjunct Professors: Burton Budick, Morgan May


The mission of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Barnard College is to provide students with an understanding of the basic laws of nature, and a foundation in the fundamental concepts of classical and quantum physics, and modern astronomy and astrophysics. Majors are offered in physics, astronomy, or in interdisciplinary fields such as, astrophysics, biophysics, or chemical physics. The goal of the department is to provide students (majors and non-majors) with quality instruction and prepare them for various post-graduate career options, including graduate study in physics and/or astronomy, professional careers in science, technology, education, or applied fields, as well health-related professions. The department strives to be a source of distinguished women scientists. The faculty in the department maintain NSF or NASA-sponsored active research programs that involve undergraduate students. All majors engage in at least one summer of independent research that is often continued during the semester, or the following summer. Students may also carry out their research at other institutions nationally, through NSF-REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs. Students are required to present the results of their research in the annual departmental “Senior Talks,” held in May.

Student Learning Goals

  • Acquire a strong intellectual foundation in physics and/or astronomy.
  • Apply scientific thinking to problems in physics and/or astronomy, and translate this to real life problems.
  • Use mathematics to describe and manipulate abstract concepts in physics and/or astronomy.
  • Perform laboratory experiments to study various physical phenomena, and use statistical approaches to analyze and interpret the data obtained in these experiments.
  • Acquire effective oral and written presentation skills to communicate scientific ideas.
  • Participate in a research project and stimulate the ability of empirical thought.
  • Demonstrate the ability to give a scientific talk on a research topic.

Student Learning Outcomes

Upon successfully completing the major, students should have the ability to:

  • demonstrate a conceptual understanding of the physical laws of nature.
  • demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the various subject areas of physics (e.g. classical mechanics, quantum physics, electromagnetism,  and thermodynamics) and/or astronomy (e.g. stellar structure and evolution, physics of the solar system, physical cosmology, and observational astronomy).
  • apply problem-solving skills beyond graduation in advanced physics and/or astronomy courses in graduate school and independent research projects.
  • apply problem-solving and computation skills in future situations in applied or technical jobs, or careers in finance and industry.
  • make an effective oral presentation to an audience of peers and faculty on a particular research topic.

From Aristotle's Physics to Newton's Principia, the term "physics," taken literally from the Greek φυσις (= Nature), implied natural science in its very broadest sense. Physicists were, in essence, natural philosophers, seeking knowledge of the observable phenomenal world. Astronomy orginally concentrated on the study of natural phenomena in the heavens with the intent to understand the constitution, relative positions, and motions of the celestial bodies in our universe. Though practitioners of these disciplines have become somewhat more specialized in the past century, the spirit that guides them in their research remains the same as it was more than two millennia ago.

In cooperation with the faculty of the University, Barnard offers a thorough pre-professional curriculum in both physics and astronomy. The faculty represents a wide range of expertise, with special strength and distinction in theoretical physics, condensed matter physics, and observational astrophysics.

Separate majors in physics and astronomy are offered. A major in astrophysics is also possible. Furthermore, there are many special interdisciplinary majors possible, such as biophysics, chemical physics, engineering physics, and mathematical physics. There is a physics minor as well. Students should consult members of the department early on in their undergraduate careers in order to plan the most effective course of study. Qualified seniors are invited to participate in the seniors honors program, in which they carry out a year-long research project leading to the thesis.

There are several quite distinct introductory sequences in physics, only one of which may be taken for credit:

  1. PHYS C 1001-2, Physics for Poets, is a lecture course in physics intended for liberal arts students. A semester of this CU lecture course satisfies the BC Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Note, however, that 1001-2 does not satisfy the premedical nor physics requirement for any major. It should also not be taken to satisfy the BC lab science requirement.
  2. PHYS V 1201-2, General Physics, is satisfactory preparation for medical school and is appropriate for most non-science major premedical students. This course is taught at Columbia in a large lecture hall setting. It is not recommended as a foundation for more advanced work in the field.  Taken in conjunction with PHYS V 1291-2, this sequence does satisfy the college LAB requirement, but the student population is essentially premed. Note that PHYS V 1201/1202 are required in order to take the lab course.
  3. PHYS BC 2001-2, 3001, Physics I, II, III, is Barnard's own three-semester, calculus based introductory sequence in physics. Characterized by modest class sizes, it is designed specifically for Barnard women with a serious interest in any of the natural sciences or mathematics. Moreover, it is especially appropriate for majors in physics, chemistry, or biochemistry, whether premedical or not. Biology majors with some calculus background are also encouraged to take this sequence. Finally, Barnard women contemplating a major in physics or astronomy should take PHYS BC 2001-2 in their first year, if possible, or in their second at the latest, to be followed by the third-semester course, Classical Waves and Optics.
  4. First-year students with exceptional aptitude for physics (as evidenced, for example, by scores of 4 or 5 on the advanced placement C exam) and a good mathematical background may be admitted into the Columbia-taught two-semester sequence PHY C 2801-02 General Physics, which replaces all three terms of the sequence for majors. Students considering this sequence are strongly encouraged to consult a Barnard faculty member at the start of the term.

Students unsure about the most appropriate sequence should consult members of the department.

The following courses may be substituted for each other:

PHYS BC 2001-2 (sect.1; 4.5pts) = C1601-2 (3.0pts.) + BC 2001-2 (sect.3; 1.5pts.)
PHYS BC 3001 (sect.1; 5pts) = C2601 (3.0pts) + BC 3001(sect.3; 2pts)
ASTR BC 1753-4 = C 1403-4