A Guide to Selecting the Best Introductory Physics Courses for You

The Yale Physics Department offers four two-semester introductory physics sequences, namely PHYS 170/171, PHYS 180/181, PHYS 200/201, and PHYS 260/261, any of which can be used towards an undergraduate degree in Physics. It is not always easy for students to identify the most appropriate physics sequence for them, and so the following is a guide to aid students and their advisors in the decision-making process.  Whichever sequence you pick, you must take it in order, i.e. PHYS 170 before PHYS 171, PHYS 180 before PHYS 181, PHYS 200 before PHYS 201 and PHYS 260 before PHYS 261. We strongly recommend too that you stick in the same sequence throughout the entire year.

PHYS 170-171 is a novel introductory physics sequence aimed at students interested in the biological sciences and medicine.  In addition to fundamental principles and applications of Newtonian mechanics, PHYS 170 includes quantitative treatments of random walks, Brownian motion and diffusion, disease progression, drug delivery, fluid mechanics of the circulatory system, and statistical mechanical treatments of a number of cellular processes. The goals of PHYS 170 are: (1) Demonstrate the application of physics and mathematics to the life sciences and the human body via highly-relevant examples; (2) Introduce biological science majors and future clinicians to a set of mathematical and physical principles and techniques that will enable a deeper scientific understanding of biological systems, including the human body; (3) Seed an appreciation of the power of mathematical and physical approaches in biology and medicine; (4) Satisfy the physics requirements of biological science majors at Yale, and satisfy the physics requirement for medical school. Although PHYS 170 is designed to appeal to future clinicians, it is not an MCAT preparation course, although it does address some of the competencies specified in MCAT 2015. PHYS 170 is suitable for students with little or no physics background. However, it is recommended that students who chose to take PHYS 170 should have previously taken Yale’s introductory chemistry and biology sequences, or equivalent AP courses. PHYS 170-171 is a calculus-based sequence, and knowledge of differential and integral calculus at the level of MATH 112 or equivalent is a prerequisite. PHYS 170 is a prerequisite for PHYS 171, which covers harmonic oscillators, waves, electromagnetism, Maxwell’s equations, optics, quantum mechanics, and cellular feedback. Please don’t let the course numbering fool you; PHYS 170-171 is not a less challenging sequence than PHYS 180-181. 

PHYS 180-181 follows a traditional introductory physics syllabus and is the sequence that most resembles a typical high school or AP physics course in content. The goal of PHYS 180-181 is to provide a strong foundation in physics that will satisfy the physics requirements of other science and engineering majors at Yale, and for medical school, and to provide students the experience of thinking like a physicist. PHYS 180 includes: Newtonian mechanics, planetary motion, rigid body rotation, harmonic oscillators, and waves. Calculus at the level of MATH 112 or equivalent is a prerequisite for PHYS 180. PHYS 180 is suitable for students with little or no physics background, but, of course, it will be less challenging for those who have previously taken high school or AP physics. PHYS 181 provides a comprehensive first course in electricity and magnetism and an introduction to relativity, and quantum mechanics. Calculus at the level of MATH 115 or equivalent is a prerequisite for PHYS 181. Taking MATH 120 previously or concurrently is recommended for PHYS 181. However if you cannot take MATH 120 please talk to the PHYS 181 instructor before deciding not to take PHYS 181. In deciding between PHYS 170/171 and PHYS 180/181, personal preference should guide you to the right course for your learning style and interests. Students trying to decide between PHYS 170 and PHYS 180 often shop both.

PHYS 200-201 is a more advanced version of a traditional introductory physics syllabus, aimed at students with a strong interest in physics. The sequence will be challenging for a student who has not previously taken a physics course; there will be a less thorough review of basic high school physics and more new material will be introduced. Conversely, the well-prepared student might be bored (and thus dissatisfied) with PHYS 180 and is encouraged to take PHYS 200. One goal of PHYS 200-201 is to bring in as much modern physics (relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.) as is reasonably possible, while still covering the basic syllabus of the typical introductory sequence. Differential and integral calculus is used extensively in PHYS 200 and multivariable calculus  in PHYS 201. MATH 120 or ENAS 151 must be taken previously or concurrently with PHYS 201. Students trying to decide between PHYS 180 and PHYS 200 often shop both.

PHYS 260-261 is an advanced physics “topics” course aimed at students with a strong physics and mathematics background, who have typically already completed a yearlong calculus-based AP Physics course in mechanics and electricity and magnetism. The sequence will emphasize a more sophisticated treatment of these two topics before focusing on Quantum Mechanics and Special and General Relativity, but will omit some topics typically covered in an introductory physics sequence.  One of MATH 120 or ENAS 151 or MATH 230 or an equivalent course in multivariable calculus is a co-requisite or prerequisite for PHYS 260/261.  Since a strong foundation in physics is important, PHYS 260-261 should not be taken by a student who has not seen both mechanics and E&M at the typical college/AP level.  Conversely, the very well prepared student might be bored (and thus dissatisfied) with PHYS 200 and should be encouraged to take PHYS 260. Students trying to decide between PHYS 200 and PHYS 260 often shop both.