When you hear about Johns Hopkins University in the news, it often concerns one of two renowned organizations affiliated with the school — the Applied Physics Laboratory and the Medical School and Center. Less noted but equally renowned are the excellent JHU undergraduate programs that attract students from around the world. Among the most notable of these is the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics & Astronomy within the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences.
Johns Hopkins University (JHU) is a private research university with its main campus in north Baltimore, Maryland. Founded in 1876, the university was named for its first benefactor, the American entrepreneur, abolitionist, and philanthropist Johns Hopkins. Modeled after Germany’s ancient Heidelberg University, JHU was the first research university in the United States. It’s the largest research university in the country as measured by funding from the federal government for research and development projects.
Among JHU alumni and faculty have been 37 Nobel laureates, with the most recent being Adam Reiss in 2011, a professor in the Physics & Astronomy Department, “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae.” In 2002, another laureate on the Department’s faculty was Riccardo Giacconi, who won “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources”.
Even as freshmen, students in the Physics & Astronomy Department learn in small classes designed specifically for physics majors. There is a freshmen class for majors that sets the tone for the four year program because its intellectual orientation is geared to “physics thinking” — the way physicists approach a problem. The class is small enough for individual attention but large enough to foster the formation of a strong bond among students and with the faculty.
JHU has received more funds in federal research grants than any other U.S. university for 35 consecutive years. Much of this research is conducted by the Physics & Astronomy Department. Counting research faculty and staff in addition to academic faculty, there are about 100 PhD scientists currently in the Department. Students have many opportunities to join research teams. Nearly all undergraduate physics majors participate in research projects, whether in astronomy, condensed matter physics, or high-energy particle physics. Many students graduate having co-authored at least one journal article.
An attractive feature of the Physics & Astronomy Department is the location of classes in the Bloomberg Center. Encompassing 238,000 square feet and seven levels with a rooftop observatory dome, the Bloomberg Center for Physics & Astronomy is the largest building on JHU’s main campus. A locus for scientific research, the Center is enhanced by the presence of NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute, the scientific home of the Hubble Space Telescope, across the street.
Undergraduate majors in Physics & Astronomy are encouraged to form a supportive and cohesive community. The JHU chapter of the Society of Physics Students hosts weekly meetings featuring talks by faculty. Once a year the Department sponsors a physics trip. Recent groups have gone to CERN, the site of the Large Hadron Collider, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the Kennedy Space Center.
The breadth of the possible applications of “physics thinking” explains why the Department has not one program, but two; one that leads to a B.S. degree and the other to a B.A. The B.S. program prepares students for either a physics-related job or for graduate study in physics, astronomy, and related fields; the B.A. program provides students with a solid grounding in physics, but is geared more toward post-graduate enrollment in professional schools such as law or medicine.
The student learning goals for both programs include the following:
- Mastery of core subject material: The most fundamental part of the physics body of knowledge are the concepts of classical mechanics, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics. These topics contain key facts about the physical world and techniques for analyzing physical systems.
- Critical thinking: In physics, the ability to think critically and assess quantitatively means that a physicist is able to transform perplexing phenomena into well-formulated questions and to test theories that may answer those questions through experimentation.
- Enthusiasm for learning: Develop an appreciation for the satisfaction of self-directed intellectual investigation and, at the same time, also understand what can be accomplished by cooperative efforts with others.
- Preparation to pursue career objectives: As noted above, the Physics & Astronomy major has two tracks, one that leads to a B.A. and the other that leads to a B.S. These usually lead to different careers.
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Popular culture can leave a negative impression of Baltimore, due partly to a few first-rate directors and screenwriters who are from the city. But Baltimore is among the great cities of the Eastern seaboard and its surrounding area has much to offer students. It’s a fine place to spend your college years.