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Physics elective choice for engineering student

  1. Jul 22, 2015 #1
    Hello PF!

    So I'm an engineering student soon to enter the final year of my degree, and I have two electives that I'm taking physics modules (read: classes for the US peeps :P ). The first one I'm planning on taking Quantum Mechanics I as one of them, but I'm not sure what to take for the other.

    The options I have are:

    Thermal Physics - standard first thermodynamics/statistical physics course. Its about 2/3 thermodynamics and stat phys to the extent of distributions, then about 1/3 stat mech focusing on partition functions and quantum stat phys. Supposedly quite easy in previous years, it has a new lecturer this year so I expect the exam format will change.

    Condensed Matter I - a first course in solid state/condensed matter physics. Starts with crystal structure and the free electron model then moves on to semiconductors and some nanostructures topics. However I have been advised by SEVERAL different people it's very poorly taught, and my flatmate who demonstrates (TA's) the module has said the lecturer has literally asked unsolvable questions on the homeworks before without realizing it.

    Analytical and Chaotic Dynamics - a second (optional, unlike the previous two which are core physics classes for the degree/major) classical mechanics course. Despite the title it's mostly (75%+) analytical dynamics with only a short "topical" introduction to chaos and dynamical systems at the end (which apparently is only on one question in the exam which can be skipped if you choose other ones, for better or for worse). The lecturer is pretty intense apparently, and has a heavy accent, but otherwise the module is well received. It's considered fairly difficult however.

    Nuclear and High Energy Particle Physics - a (relatively) non-mathematical introduction to nuclear and high energy physics. About a third of the course is on various nuclear topics such as structure, spin, decay and neutrinos. The rest is various particle and high energy topics from a primarily qualitative point of view, including an overview of the standard model, including topics relating to symmetry, and some QED and QCD (again fairly qualitative with it seems only very constrained and simple calculations involved). It also discusses the Casimir Force, weak interactions and gauge symmetries as short topics. Allegedly somewhat boring, although not terrible difficult. It's worth noting there is another module, Principles of Theoretical Physics, which deals with most of the high energy topics from a much more rigorous theoretical and mathematically sophisticated point of view, and so they've been designed to not overlap too much.

    Outside of this my background is mainly in electronic engineering, although I've refocused on materials science in this final year. I'm also taking an engineering electromagnetics module, and the rest are various materials themed ones (two topical ones on research in the department and one on the mechanics of materials).

    I'm not really sure what I plan to do after I graduate, although I'm fairly certain I'm not going to get a job as an engineer (even if I wanted one, which I'm not sure I do). I've considered looking into a masters in physics afterwards and shifting gears more towards that side (hence EM and QM1) but I'm not sure if/when this will happen (what with tuition fees and such). When I originally went into my degree I was really interested in nuclear engineering, particular nuclear fusion and plasma physics, but I'm not really so sure now. I think quantum computing is also quite interesting from the standpoint of physically realizing a quantum computer (i.e. not designing quantum algorithms), but I can't really say I'd be certain I want to study/research in this field in future.

    Thus, which of the above four would you suggest if I was hypothetically going to continue to a (general) physics masters degree? Either as a terminal degree or as preparation for potential doctoral work in physics, applied physics or materials science/engineering. Which would you suggest simply for intellectual enjoyment and beauty (if any)? Finally which do you think would be most practical e.g. in terms of getting a good grade etc?

    edit: also it may be worth noting that I haven't had any thermodynamics courses in my engineering curriculum, having originally focused on electronic engineering, and that our first year mechanics was much more focused on statics/solid mechanics than dynamics (although we did both, to some extent).
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2015 #2
    The most useful would be condensed or thermo\stat. I would have put high energy\nuke but a qualitative pass at such a subject does no justice to it. Also, condensed matter physics is fairly advanced and uses quantum field theory or at least advanced quantum mechanics, seeing as you haven't taken QM yet your best bet is thermo\stat
  4. Jul 22, 2015 #3
    Oh also I forgot to mention, QM is term 1 and the others are term 2, so I will have done QM by the time I take those. However also the condensed matter course is the first of 2 courses (the second being a masters level) and is a second year course (from a 3 year degree in the UK system; thermo is also a second year course) so it might not be as mathematically sophisticated as the latter two.
  5. Jul 22, 2015 #4
    I would go with thermodynamics\statistical mechanics. Condensed matter physics at a master's level, if master's in the UK means the same as it does here in the US, would require a nodding acquaintance with quantum field theory at least. not to mention you usually would be required to have had stat\thermo as a requirement in the first place because condensed matter physics deals with ensembles and not individual particles.
  6. Jul 22, 2015 #5
    Also I realize the term "unmathematical" is fairly non-specific, in this case I mean it in the sense that it's a course for undergrads and doesn't assume anything beyond the core mathematics modules (which cover calculus through multivariable/vector calculus, ODEs, some PDE topics, some special functions (gamma and green's functions I think) fourier series/transforms, matrices and complex numbers and a little linear algebra proper.

    Stuff like group theory, complex variables and conformal mapping etc are all part of optional modules for the physicists so they wouldn't have necessarily covered it by that time (although it's assumed for the counterpart theory module). Thus when I say the nuclear/high energy course is unmathematical I mean in the sense that it's not designed to teach QFT for potential PGs, it's to provide an introduction to the field for UGs who may then continue into that area as a PG (or not).

    The first condensed matter course (the one I would be taking) is a second year course, and it's normally taken alongside thermo, although it isn't a formal co-requisite. Here's the syllabus summary:

    1. Introduction
      Brief historical survey.
    2. Crystal Structures
      1. Direct and reciprocal lattices (Revision)
      2. General features of scattering by solids (Revision)
      3. Scattered-wave amplitude, structure factor, form factor
      4. Brillouin zones
    3. Free-electron model
      1. Free-electron Fermi gas
      2. Energy dispersion in k-space
      3. Reduced and extended zones
      4. Effective mass
      5. Density of states
      6. Electron-distribution function; Fermi level
      7. Heat capacity
    4. Nearly-Free-Electron Model
      1. Effect of crystal potential on the free-electron picture
      2. Bloch electron
      3. Origin of energy-band gaps
      4. Holes
    5. Band Picture for Classification of Solids
      1. Formation of energy bands in solids
      2. Band picture for insulators, semiconductors and metals
    6. Fermi surfaces
      1. Fermi surfaces in metals
      2. Harrison's construction of the Fermi sphere
    7. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Semiconductors
      1. Donor and acceptor levels in semiconductors; ionization energy of a donor electron, and the Bohr radius
      2. Free-charge-carrier concentration and the Fermi level at different temperatures
      3. The significance of the Fermi level; band structure of a p-n junction
      4. Elementary Optical Properties of Semiconductors: Fundamental absorption; direct and indirect transitions; absorption coefficient; recombination
    8. Phonons
      1. Lattice vibrations of the monatomic linear chain
      2. Diatomic linear chain.
      3. Lattice vibrations of three-dimensional crystals
        1. Longitudinal and transverse phonons;
        2. Plotting of dispersion relations
      4. Heat Capacity
    9. Transport Properties (Electrical and Thermal)
      1. Relaxation times: phonon/lattice; electronic
      2. Drift and diffusion in semiconductors; the Einstein relation
      3. Thermal conduction in semiconductors and insulators
      4. Drift and thermal conduction in metals
      5. The Wiedemann-Franz law
    10. Introduction to Nanostructures and Nanomaterials
      1. Quantum Wells, Wires and Dots
      2. Carbon nanotubes
      3. Graphene

    However it's probably worth noting for the last three years the average mark for the module has barely been above the minimum pass and everyone I've spoken to hated taking it, and their comments seem to fall in line with my experience of materials science lecturers in engineering (for some reason the field seems to just attract people who are incapable of talking to human beings or something).
  7. Jul 22, 2015 #6
    I think you've answered your own question there.
  8. Jul 22, 2015 #7
    Haha yeah, I was pretty wary of that one from the get-go to be honest. My flatmate who's a PhD in the department, and also did his undegrad here (and hence has taken most of the classes before) recommends thermo or nuclear, on the basis that they're reasonable in terms of difficulty and generally decently lectured (although he doesn't know the new lecturer for thermo). Thermo definitely seems to stand out as the one that is most relevant to my other classes and getting an overall physics education, but I'm wary about the change in lecturer as in my experience the first time someone new does a course the final is either incredibly easy or impossibly hard...

    So far no one seems to have commented on analytical dynamics, which struck me as the most "physicsy" one available, from a purely academic point of view. My only interaction with lecturer so far he seemed friendly enough (he was explaining some of the weird tutorial systems they have in physics that no other department does). I imagine the Lagrangian formulation will be helpful if I went on to further study in physics, but it's kind of irrelevant outside of that (it also covers the Hamiltonian formulation which obviously links to quantum, but since I'll be doing quantum the term before it's not like it'll help during the course itself).
  9. Jul 22, 2015 #8
    The reason I strayed from that is because it has "Chaos" in the title. Chaos theory is simply not useful or relevant other than a mathematical exercise in physics. However, if you've never had LaGrangian or Hamiltonian mechanics then by far that course is more important than thermo. Quantum Mechanics is much more understandable after a course in LaGrangian\Hamiltonian dynamics. Most of the theory, in fact, is carried over from things called poisson brackets and promoting the hamiltonian to an operator. Not only that, but all modern theories are formulated with the same basic principles that are assumed in such a course, the principle of stationary action. Quantum field theory is certainly reliant on it, and general relativity also can be formulated that way. By all means LaGrange\Hamiltonian mechanics should be taken.
  10. Jul 22, 2015 #9
    Ah I see, well the chaos is kind of a misnomer because it's only a topic they added to the end when they changed from 10 credits to 15 (they also expanded on the calculus of variations I think).

    Looking at the past papers, the format is doing 4/6 questions (it's 100% final exam so the past papers are pretty important xD ) and there's only ever been one question on the chaos/dynamical systems topics, which I imagine is representative of the amount of time spent on it I think (it was originally just called analytical dynamics before the credit change).

    So I think I've definitely narrowed it down to either analytical dynamics or thermo. I kind of feel like I ought to have SOME kind of thermodynamics in my course seeing as I am supposed to be graduating with a degree in engineering, but equally I realize I'm pretty unlikely to pursue engineering generally anyway (and if I did it'd probably be academically in a fairly physics-y area since I'm more interested in the underlying principles than the applications). Which makes me lean towards analytical dynamics. Additionally since it's a summer exam, I have longer to prepare for it, and I only have one other exam that semester as well, so the added difficulty of the subject (relative to the other options) isn't as big an issue.
  11. Jul 22, 2015 #10
    You can self study thermodynamics, it isnt a very difficult subject. Statistical mechanics on the other hand is a massive topic, you wouldn't be able to cover all of it in one course anyway. LaGrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics are very very important. It is a much maturer view of physics and anyone who pursues engineering or physics should take it. Hands down that is the course I would suggest.
  12. Jul 22, 2015 #11
    That's a good point, I think I will go with that one then :)

    Thank you for your help!
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