Physics 54: General Physics II

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light refracting, reflecting, dispersing
     through prism, from
closeup of human eye closeup of dragonfly eye, Dima Fisher scallop eye uses spherical mirror to focus light
(Click on an image to view a larger version.)
Light entering a glass prism from the lower left demonstrates the three phenomena of reflection, refraction and dispersion. Through evolution, animals have developed different strategies for using these phenomena to form images. The human eye and the dragonfly eye use refraction of light but in different ways, for example the dragonfly eye uses hundreds of small immobile optical units called ommatidia to form an image while mammals use a single large lens. Scallops have eyes (the blueberry-like object on right) that instead use reflection of light by a curved spherical mirror to form an image. These pictures raise many interesting questions that are addressed in Physics 54: What is light? Can we understand quantitatively how light reflects and refracts? How does the scallop produce a mirror out of soft non-metallic tissue? What determines the quality of an image formed by these and other optical devices? Answers to these and related questions help us understand how biology and physics interact to produce eyes, and often suggest inventions to help people and machines to see better.


Welcome to the home page for Physics 54, the second part of the Physics Department's two-semester introductory survey course that is taken especially by students interested in the life sciences (although we certainly welcome students of all interests). Many of the lectures and labs discuss applications of physics to medicine and biology, and nearly all of the material is extremely useful for understanding how biological organisms function or how the many experimental devices used by life scientists work (electrodes, microscopes, telescopes, digital cameras, voltmeters, ammeters, motors, spectroscopes, antennas, telemetry, polarizers, optical tweezers, defibrillators, etc). Many 54 students are pleasantly surprised to find that the course is genuinely interesting and rewarding in its own right, with many neat insights. For example, it is satisfying to understand "what is light", especially light's unexpected connection to oscillating electric and magnetic fields.

Topics Covered in Physics 54

Topics discussed include electrostatic forces, fields, and potentials; capacitors; simple circuits consisting of batteries, resistors and capacitors; magnetic forces and fields; how electrical currents produce magnetic fields and how time varying magnetic fields produce currents (magnetic induction); Maxwell's equations that unify all electrical and magnetic phenomena; light as electromagnetic waves; wave properties of light including interference, diffraction, and polarization; ray properties of light including reflection and refraction; and geometric optics of mirrors and lenses with applications to optical devices such as magnifiers, microscopes, telescopes, cameras, and biological eyes.

In spring 2006, the course will use the text Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics, Third Edition by Douglas C. Giancoli (Prentice Hall, 2000).

Course Components

The course encourages mastery by giving students multiple opportunities to use their knowledge:

Further details of the course are available through the 2006 course overview.

Time and Location of Lectures

Spring semester of 2006, lectures are held on Tuesdays and Thursday from 10:05-11:20 am and from 11:40-12:55 pm in Physics 128 (which was previously room 114). Labs and recitations are held at various times throughout the week.

Professor Werner Tornow will give all lectures during the first half of the course while Professor Henry Greenside will give all lectures for the second half of the course. Professors Werner Tornow, Bill McNairy, Henry Greenside, George Rogosa and Dipangkar Dutta will be teaching recitations. Professor Mary Creason will be in charge of the 54 labs.


A C- grade or better in Physics 53 or an equivalent approved course. Students enrolled in Physics 54 must also enroll in a weekly recitation and weekly lab.


Questions about this course should be forwarded to the course coordinator Professor Henry Greenside (email or to the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Calvin Howell (email

Further information about the course, especially documents such as homeworks, quizzes, and exams, is available through the course's Blackboard webpage. This can be accessed by logging in to Duke's Blackboard system. If you are not a member of the Duke community, you can use the login "guest" with password "guest". After logging in as "guest", select the "Courses" tab from the top of the Blackboard menu, then search for the course "Physics 54". You can then select the course site for the current semester.

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