Dec 11, 2023  
2010-2011 Catalog 
2010-2011 Catalog [ARCHIVED CATALOG]

Physics and Astronomy


The Department of Physics and Astronomy offers a BS degree in physics and a BA in Education degree in physics/mathematics and chemistry/physics education. The physics BS is based on a core curriculum that covers the five fundamental theories of physics: mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, relativity and quantum mechanics. Laboratory work forms an important part of many of the core courses, and more sophisticated upper-division laboratories are offered in electronics, optics, and lasers. Students graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics are well prepared for graduate school in physics, astronomy, optics and several fields of engineering or a variety of industrial jobs.

Physics majors are encouraged to work for the department as laboratory teaching assistants and as co-workers in the technical work of the department. Such employment provides valuable experience as well as financial support. It also promotes close association between faculty and students.


Physics is the fundamental science. It is the study of matter and energy and the interaction between the two. Astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and engineering apply the principles of physics to specific problems. Almost all areas of modern technology involve applications of physics. An undergraduate major in physics provides a solid foundation upon which to build later work in astronomy, optics and engineering, applied mathematics, as well as physics itself. Students planning careers in physics should select the physics Bachelor of Science program, since this will give them the extensive background required for success in graduate school or a variety of job possibilities.

Computers are playing an increasingly important role in physics research and work in applied physics. The department manages a laboratory/classroom equipped with 20 modern microcomputers running sophisticated physics, mathematics and astronomy software packages, as well as Web browsers. Students can expect to make use of the computers in the majority of their physics courses. The computers are available to physics majors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, for theoretical research projects, there are a number of Linux-based microcomputers.

The department also offers a variety of research opportunities in experimental condensed-matter physics.


Astronomy is the study of the planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. Our current understanding of the basic physical processes that underlie the universe continues to evolve as new discoveries are made with advanced data analysis and sophisticated electronic instrumentation on both ground-based telescopes and space-based missions. Professional astronomers usually are university faculty members or are scientists with national observatories and government laboratories, but a background in astronomy can also be useful for research careers in business and private industry where knowledge of instrumentation and remote sensing is valued. Students planning professional careers in astronomy should select the Bachelor of Science program in physics and the minor in astronomy. Together, these programs provide a solid preparation for graduate work.

Although the department does not have an observatory, it does have astronomical imaging facilities equipped with computers, professional image analysis software, and a computer-controlled 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a CCD camera. In addition, much of modern research in astronomy in this department and throughout the astronomical community uses the Internet, with large new databases of astronomical data and remote access to telescopes around the world. Students who complete courses in astronomy are encouraged to work with faculty on astronomy research and take the senior project course in astronomy.


Optical science deals with light and its interaction with matter. Optoelectronics extends this science to the design and construction of useful devices and systems that generate, manipulate, or detect light in the visible and other adjacent ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g., LEDs, lasers, photo detectors). Students interested in careers in the latter areas should select the physics Bachelor of Science degree and these optional courses: PHYS 339 (Optics), PHYS 475 (Physics of Solids and Materials I), and PHYS 476 (Physics of Solids and Materials II). Students may also do related project work in the department’s laboratories under PHYS 400 (Directed Independent Study) and/or PHYS 491 (Senior Project in Experimental Physics).

Optical science and optical engineering have become important fields for both industry and government in recent years. Major international meetings in optics and related topics are organized and held several times a year by SPIE (the International Society for Optical Engineering). This organization has its headquarters in Bellingham, and the department has benefited in a variety of ways through its interaction with the SPIE organization.


BRAD JOHNSON (1997) Chair and Professor. BS, MSBS, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs; PhD, University of Colorado-Boulder.
W. LOUIS BARRETT (1968) Professor. BS, University of Idaho; MS, PhD, University of Washington.
ANDREW BOUDREAUX (2008) Assistant Professor. BS, University of California-Berkeley; PhD, University of Washington.
MILTON FROM (1998) Associate Professor. BSC, University of Manitoba; MSc, PhD, McGill University.
KRISTEN LARSON (2002) Associate Professor. BS, University of California-San Diego; MS, PhD, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
JANELLE LEGER (2008) Assistant Professor. BS, University of California-Davis; PhD, University of California at Santa Cruz
GEORGE NELSON (2002) Associate Professor. BS, Harvey Mudd College; MS, PhD, University of Washington.
ANDREAS RIEMANN (2006) Assistant Professor. BS, MS, University Halle, Germany; PhD, Free University Berlin, Germany.
KENNETH RINES (2008) Assistant Professor. BA, Rice University; AM, PhD, Harvard University
TAKELE SEDA (2002) Associate Professor. BS, Asmara University (Eritrea); MS, Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia); PhD, University of the Witwattersand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
JAMES STEWART (1987) Professor. BA, BS, University of North Dakota; MS, PhD, University of New Mexico.
RICHARD VAWTER (1968) Associate Professor. BS, Texas Technological University; MS, State University of Iowa; PhD, State University of New York.

Adjunct Faculty

KATHLEEN SANDELIN, BS, Western Washington University; MS, College of William and Mary.
JOHN WILLS, BA, San Diego State University; PhD, University of Washington.

Declaration Process

Contact the Physics/Astronomy Advisor at any time throughout the year to declare in person or by mail. Be sure to provide unofficial copies of your transcript(s). We will determine which courses you have already taken will be applied toward the major, and develop a plan of study for coursework remaining. If you’re not sure which program option is for you, we can help.

It is to your best advantage to declare the major as soon as you can, ideally no later than the end of your freshman year or as soon as your transfer to Western, in order to establish a plan of study, receive important information from the department, and get priority enrollment into required courses.  The department also offers certain benefits to majors that are not available to other students, such as accounts on department computers, after-hours access to laboratory equipment, employment by the department and, in some cases, office space.

Other Departmental Information

Academic Placement

Advice to Freshman

The physics curriculum that forms the core of the physics BS program is arranged in a logical sequence, so that earlier courses are usually prerequisites for later courses. This means that it is important to start the core sequence as early as possible, since any substantial delay will result in the student needing more than four years to complete the degree. All physics major courses require mathematics, and calculus is particularly important. For this reason, a freshman considering a major in physics should take MATH 124 (Calculus and Analytic Geometry) or 134 (Honors Calculus I) or 138 (Accelerated Calculus) his or her very first quarter at Western. Freshmen who have had calculus in high school are advised to take PHYS 121 (Physics with Calculus I) that same first quarter, along with the appropriate level calculus course. Freshmen who have had no calculus at all should postpone PHYS 121 until their second quarter at Western, so that they may first complete MATH 124 or 134 or 138. The physics course sequence has been arranged so that this delay of one quarter will not cause problems later, so long as MATH 124 or 134 or 138 is still taken the first quarter.

Advice to Transfer Students

The first two years of the physics BS program is based on the following core courses:

Students planning to transfer to Western from a community college should strive to take as many equivalents of the courses above as possible. The community college sequence equivalent to PHYS 121-122-123 will usually be called introductory physics with calculus and will probably include labs. MATH 124 or 134, MATH 125 or 135, or 138, 224 is the first year of college calculus. MATH 203 and 303 is a two-quarter sequence in linear algebra and differential equations. Students should be aware that like-named 200-level community college courses may not transfer as equivalent.

Mid-Program Checkpoint

A student seeking to complete a BS degree in physics within a four-year time span should have completed the following courses by the start of his/her junior year. Major omissions from this list will make it difficult or impossible to complete this degree within two additional years.

A student seeking to complete a BA in Education degree in physics/mathematics within a four-year time span should have completed the following courses by the start of his/her junior year. Major omissions from this list will make it difficult or impossible to complete this degree within two additional years.


Anyone interested in learning more about the study of physics, astronomy and optics at Western is invited to write, phone, e-mail, fax or visit the chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA 98225-9164. Telephone: 360-650-3818, fax: 360-650-6505. Information about Western’s physics and astronomy programs is also available through the World Wide Web at The department is in Communications Facility 385.

Undergraduate Degrees and Programs

Physics, BS 

Chemistry/Physics - Secondary, BAE 

Physics/Mathematics — Secondary, BAE 

Astronomy Minor 

Physics Minor 

Physics and Astronomy Courses