Introductory Physics Courses

The Department of Physics offers three sequences of introductory calculus-based courses designed to meet the needs of different majors. 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 161D/164L and 162D/165L 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.

  • Potential physics and biophysics majors: PHYSICS 161D/162D with 164L/165L
  • Engineering students: PHYSICS 151L/152L/153L
  • Other majors: PHYSICS 141L/142L

Physics/Biophysics Majors: Physics 161D and 162D with 164L/165L

The discussion sequence PHYSICS 161D (Fundamentals of Physics I)/PHYSICS 162D (Fundamentals of Physics II) with the introductory lab sequence PHYSICS 164L (Introductory Experimental Physics I)/PHYSICS 165L (Introductory Experimental 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 physics background, please talk with the Director of Undergraduate Studies or with the PHYSICS 161D or 162D instructor before the course begins.  

PHYSICS 161D is only offered in the fall semester and PHYSICS 162D is only offered in the spring.  There are no labs linked to these courses; instead, 164L and 165L are separate half-credit courses that should be taken by all majors. Both 164L and 165L are offered each semester.  It's nice to take 164L concurrently with 161D and 165L concurrently with 162, but not necessary, since 164L and 165L emphasize general experimental skills. Note that 164L is a prerequisite for 165L.  

The 161D/162D sequence differs from the other introductory sequences (141L/142L, 151L/152L/153L) in three ways. First, 161 and 162 offer a small classroom experience---about 30 students each semester---versus the hundreds of students that take 141L/142L and 151L/152L. The small class allows students and the professor to get to know each other well, which encourages discussion and collaboration. The lab courses 164L and 165L offer creative and interesting labs integrated with programming and data analysis skill development, and are intended as preparation for research experiences.

Second, PHYSICS 161D/164L and 162D/165L 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 161D/164L and 162D/165L 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, 161D/164L and 162D/165L 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 advanced physics in high school, as well as a strong background in mathematics, 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 164L, PHYSICS 162D, and PHYSICS165L in your first year. If you have a strong high-school background in both mechanics and electrodynamics, then taking PHYSICS 163D (and the 164L/165L sequence) is recommended.  

Note that AP or IB credit is not accepted for Physics major introductory physics requirements, although some other departments may accept it for their major requirements.

First year students are recommended  to take at least one intro physics course before sophomore year (to gain college-level problem solving skills). It is important to build up math skills, by taking multivariate calculus (Math 212) as soon as feasible. However students who have not had the opportunity to take much math and physics before arriving at Duke are usually able to fill in gaps and complete their requirements in four years. Students are encouraged to consult the DUS to get recommendations matching their backgrounds. 

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

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

For Other Majors: Physics 141L and 142L

The courses 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.