Physics and Astronomy

Academic Department Introduction

We investigate the large- and small-scale workings of the universe—from atoms, nuclei, and elementary particles, to planets, stars, and galaxies. We search for unifying principles underlying nature’s diverse phenomena. Our astronomy program serves the novice stargazer as well as committed majors.

Wellesley was the second college in the nation to open physics research laboratories for undergraduates. Our world-class resources include the Whitin Observatory, considered an unusually fine facility for undergraduate training. Our majors are uniquely equipped to challenge the status quo in astronomy and physics, not just because of their courses and activities, but because their collaboration with classmates creates an appealing and nourishing environment for work and learning.

Learning goals

  • Use theoretical, experimental, mathematical, and computational skills acquired in the classroom to solve problems in the real world and to model physical phenomena.

  • Develop basic scientific and physical reasoning and probleming solving abilities through contextualization, approximation, analysis, and reflection.

  • Cultivate research skills through work inside and outside the classroom, both independently and through collaboration with others.

Programs of Study

Physics major and minor

Students will be able to explain the basic natural laws of the universe within the fields of classical mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, and recognize the interrelated nature of these fields. Students have the option to major in chemical physics or create an interdisciplinary major with courses at Wellesley, Olin College, and MIT.

Astrophysics major and astronomy major and minor

Students will be able to apply an astronomer’s toolkit based on the properties of light, matter, and gravity to understand the life stories of planetary worlds, planetary systems, stars, galaxies, and the origin and fate of the universe. They will conduct their own observations at Whitin Observatory and learn to interpret astronomical data using physical and mathematical models.

Places and spaces

  • Long-exposure shot of the night sky above Whitin Observatory.

    Whitin Observatory. The observatory houses classrooms, astronomy laboratory facilities, the Astronomy Library, faculty offices, and the ASTRO Club. Nearly every clear night, our telescopes are used for teaching activities and research. Periodically, the observatory is open to the public.

  • Students Alayna Shneider and Cora Barrett work on lasers in a physics laboratory room.

    Laser lab. The laser lab is used for single-photon experiments that highlight important properties of quantum mechanics and quantum interference. We are proud to be one of the few undergraduate physics departments to run these types of experiments.

  • The Physics Mechanical Shop in the Science Center.

    Mechanical shop. The shop supplies precision metal parts, instruments, and tools for a variety of projects and needs, from the College’s MRI machine to substrate sample and photodiode holders. Physics and engineering students learn to use hand tools and machinery as well as the engineering laser and 3D printers.

  • A student uses a vertical mill in the mechanical shop.

    We-Lab. The Wellesley-Engineering Lab offers professional-grade tools and machinery for hands-on learning and rapid prototyping, including 3D printers, a laser cutter, and electronic tools and components.

Research highlights

  • Students in the Battat lab work on electronics for muon detection.

    Professor James Battat is an experimental particle physicist focusing on rare event detection. He currently builds new neutrino detection technologies to enable precision measurements of neutrino properties, possibly transforming our understanding of neutrinos and their role in the universe.

  • Group photo of students in the Whitin Observatory telescope room.

    Professor Kim McLeod and her students use Wellesley’s very own telescope to hunt for transiting exoplanets. When a planet’s orbit is aligned just right, each time it circles its host star it blocks a tiny fraction of the star’s light as seen from Earth (and Wellesley!). They have helped discover several extremely hot, inflated planets like KELT-18b as part of the KELT team, and are now part of the follow-up team for the TESS satellite.

  • Close-up of galaxies and stars.

    Professor Lamiya Mowla is part of several teams analyzing early data from the James Webb Space Telescope. Their seminal discovery of the Sparkler Galaxy opens the possibility to study the growth of galaxies and their parent halos. Photo credit: NASA ESA CSA STScI

  • Students explain their poster to professor Katie Hall at a poster session.

    Professor Erin Teich’s lab focuses primarily on phenomena within soft matter physics, a realm in which (usually) squishy materials, susceptible to thermal fluctuations, often display startling self-organization or other emergent behaviors. Students use numerical simulation, statistical physics, and network science to create and explore models of these materials, ultimately in a quest to design new soft and responsive materials.

Opportunities

  • Society of Physics Students

    A central feature of our departmental community, SPS organizes social events as well as panels on topics such as finding summer research opportunities, applying to graduate school (and what it’s like once you get there), and career paths for physics majors.

  • ASTRO Club

    Open to astronomy enthusiasts at all levels, ASTRO Club meets for recreational observing, astrophotography, and other activities. The club organizes periodic evening events for the Wellesley community and members of the public to stargaze with our historic telescopes.

  • Student voices

    Student representatives attend our department meetings. Student interns advise faculty and help organize diversity, equity, and inclusion events within the department.

  • Research

    We offer research and independent-study opportunities to students starting in their first year. Previous research experience is not a requirement, and all are welcome.

  • Observatory jobs

    Students learn to operate our historic and modern telescopes and serve as nighttime lab assistants, research assistants, and tour guides. They then can carry out research under the direction of Wellesley faculty and, during the summer, with faculty at other schools within the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium.

  • Peer support

    While all of our courses are taught by faculty members, our introductory courses include learning assistants: sophomore, junior, and senior majors who have taken a course on best practices for active learning and inclusive teaching. This type of peer-to-peer learning and support has proven highly valuable to both the learning assistants and the students in their classes.

Beyond Wellesley

Beyond Wellesley

The College averages about 10 astronomy and astrophysics majors and 18 physics majors per year. We are the leader among U.S. liberal arts colleges in conferring bachelor’s degrees in physics to women, according to the American Institute of Physics’ Statistical Research Center. Our graduates succeed in a variety of careers, including research, academia, medicine, technology, and engineering, as well as fields outside of science.

Department of Physics and Astronomy

Address
Science Center and Whitin Observatory
106 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02481
Contact
Yue Hu
Department Chair