211 Interdisciplinary Sciences Building
(831) 459-3744

Programs Offered

Physics B.S.

Physics (Astrophysics) B.S.

Applied Physics B.S.

Physics Minor

Science Education B.S.

Physics Contiguous Bachelor's/Master's Pathway

Physics M.S.

Physics Ph.D.

Other Programs of Interest

Astrophysics Minor

Astronomy and Astrophysics Ph.D.

Physics seeks to discover the fundamental regularities or “laws” that govern our universe and to apply these laws to explain the behavior of fundamental and complex systems. The same underlying principles describe the behavior of atoms, lasers, living cells, and galaxies. Physics is, therefore, at the base of all modern science and technology, and this fundamental nature can be appreciated even at an elementary level.

The Physics Department offers majors in physics, physics (astrophysics), and applied physics. These programs prepare students for graduate work in physics, astrophysics, and astronomy, and for engineering and other technical positions in industry. With appropriate courses in other disciplines, these majors provide excellent preparation for advanced study in technical subjects such as biology, chemistry, engineering, geophysics, and the philosophy of science. The applied physics major is excellent preparation for positions in industry directly upon graduation.

Faculty work with students in both formal and informal settings. Students have the opportunity to do a senior thesis. If they do a senior thesis, they will work individually with a faculty member.

The main areas of physics research at UCSC are the study of fundamental particles and interactions (high-energy physics), the study of condensed matter physics, materials physics, astrophysics/cosmology, and biophysics.

Efforts in high-energy physics are aided by the presence of an organized research unit, the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP). The SCIPP experimentalists play significant roles in experiments at some of the major accelerator laboratories in the world, including the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University and the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. SCIPP experimentalists have also played an important role in creating the major satellite for gamma-ray astronomy (the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope), are involved in the Dark Energy Survey, and conduct a thriving particle astrophysics program detecting TeV gamma rays as part of the UC VERITAS collaboration. SCIPP theorists are active in the phenomenology of high-energy particle interactions, including dark matter models, the theory of strong and electroweak interactions, electroweak symmetry breaking and Higgs bosons, theories of supersymmetry, superstrings, and gravity. SCIPP also maintains a vigorous program in particle astrophysics, including research in high-energy astrophysics, dark matter, formation of galaxies and large-scale structure in the universe, and theories of cosmology and the very early universe. SCIPP is also home to a research program in experimental biophysics, exploiting instrumentation technologies developed in other areas of physics for the study of functional organization and development of neural systems in a variety of living organisms. In addition, there is closely related research in biomedical applications such as retinal prosthesis.

The presence of the strong astrophysics group from the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department at UCSC provides a healthy symbiosis in this area. Note that the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department does not offer an undergraduate major but does participate in teaching and mentoring Physics Department astrophysics majors. UCSC is the headquarters for the University of California Observatories, which includes the Lick Observatory near San Jose and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. These provide additional opportunities for collaboration between researchers in physics and astronomy.

Condensed matter and materials physics research at UCSC covers a range of topics including the behavior of exotic many-electron systems (for example, superconductors) and quantum materials (such as topological insulators and Weyl semimetals); magnetic phase transitions; magnetic and magnetoelectric surfaces, interfaces, and thin films; two-dimensional materials and heterostructures; complex systems (proteins, DNA, and polymers); biophysics; and the development of new electronic devices using novel materials. The experimental program includes optical, magnetometry, magnetotransport, X-ray, and specific heat measurement techniques, as well as thin film growth and characterization facilities at UCSC. X-ray and synchrotron radiation scattering and spectroscopy measurements are available at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Advanced Light Source and at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light-source, while neutron scattering measurements are performed at the NIST Center for Neutron Research and the Oak Ridge Spallation Neutron Source. Undergraduate students are actively involved in several condensed matter physics laboratories during the academic year and summer months.

Undergraduate Program

Undergraduate Majors

The physics, physics (astrophysics), and applied physics major programs provide a comprehensive coverage of the field and the background necessary for graduate school or industrial careers. Students earn a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree. The UC Santa Cruz physics, physics (astrophysics), and applied physics programs begin with a four-quarter presentation of the introductory concepts of the subject, Introduction to Physics, PHYS 5A, PHYS 5B, PHYS 5C, and PHYS 5D. Note that the applied physics program also requires completion of a general chemistry course. In order for a student to finish the UCSC physics program in four years, it is important to start the Introduction to Physics sequence at the beginning of the first year. Students who complete a major sponsored by the Physics Department cannot complete a second major sponsored by the Physics Department or a physics minor.

This introductory sequence is followed by a course that provides an introduction to quantum physics and its applications, Modern Physics, PHYS 102. The programs continue with a three-quarter sequence in mathematical methods of physics, PHYS 116A, PHYS 116B, and PHYS 116C, designed to provide the mathematics preparation necessary for most of the upper-division physics courses required for the majors. Included in the upper-division programs are two intensive laboratory courses designed to illustrate both historical experiments that were important in the development of physics, astrophysics, and applied physics, and modern experimental methods. Advanced and especially motivated students may enroll in some graduate courses with the approval of the instructor and department chair.

The senior thesis provides the opportunity for students to apply their skills to problems of interest to them, either theoretical or experimental, usually with technical advice from a faculty member. The senior thesis may be based on the student’s original research or participation in a faculty member’s research project or a review of some particular area of physics, under the supervision of a faculty member. The senior thesis is a distinctive part of the UCSC physics major program and entails a substantial investment of both student and faculty time. The learning experience involved in the thesis, as well as the thesis itself, has proven extremely valuable to students in enhancing employment opportunities upon graduation or in gaining admission to graduate school.

The department is also the administrative home of the science education major, which is a collaboration between several departments in the Physical and Biological Sciences Division and the Department of Education. This major is designed for a career in teaching in California high schools by preparing students for the California Subject Examination for Teachers. (Students interested in a high school teaching career will have to fulfill additional requirements after the degree, such as earning a teaching credential.)

Courses for Non-Majors

The department offers the three-quarter sequence — PHYS 6A, PHYS 6B and PHYS 6C — that covers introductory physics at a level suitable for many majors. A two-quarter sequence — PHYS 7A and PHYS 7B — is tailored for students in the life sciences. A one-quarter overview of physics (PHYS 1) and a course on the physics underpinning music (PHYS 80U) are also offered by the department.

Graduate Program

The Physics Department offers graduate programs leading to the Master of Science (M.S.) and/or the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees. Each student has a faculty adviser who helps to determine which courses are most appropriate, taking into account the student’s background and interests. The student-faculty ratio is low so that M.S. and Ph.D. students can work closely with faculty and pursue programs that fit their individual needs. Research is currently conducted in theoretical and experimental particle physics, theoretical and experimental condensed matter physics (including materials physics and biophysics), and in theoretical and experimental/observational high-energy astrophysics (including cosmology).

Students may obtain a master’s degree through coursework (eight physics graduate courses) and submission of an approved thesis. The thesis requirement may be waived by passing four sections of the written Ph.D. qualifying examination. Master’s candidates are encouraged to write a research thesis and may do so in any of the research fields in the program, thereby developing laboratory and computational skills in areas such as electronics design, computer simulation and visualization, cryogenics, X-ray scattering, complex novel materials and devices, or materials science. Each M.S. student is assigned a faculty adviser who helps to design a coursework plan suited to the interests of the student.

Physics students and faculty use a number of UCSC research facilities described at the beginning of this section and elsewhere in this catalog, including facilities of the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP) and the UC Observatories (headquartered at UCSC). There is strong interaction with other disciplines, especially astronomy and astrophysics, biology, chemistry, Earth sciences, electrical engineering, and mathematics. Proximity to the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory provides additional local research opportunities. UCSC faculty and graduate students also participate in research programs at CERN in Geneva, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NASA Ames, NREL, Lucent, Xerox, IBM, Bell Labs, and other national and international laboratories.

Application materials and brochures describing the physics M.S. and Ph.D. graduate programs in more detail may be obtained by visiting the Physics Department website or by contacting the Division of Graduate Studies.