Newton, Maxwell, Einstein… some of history’s most important and influential people focused their studies on physics. Our modern technological society owes its existence to great thinkers such as these. Tablets, smart phones, Xboxes – the laws and equations behind every one of our favorite devices were first discovered in a physics laboratory somewhere around the globe. And although the pace of scientific discovery has been nothing short of amazing over the past two centuries, there remains a plethora of fundamental “unknowns” for future physicists to conquer: dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravity, Grand Unification Theory… and many more.
On a more practical level, majoring in physics is the only path to becoming an Air Force physicist (61D Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC)). History proves it is also an excellent path to success in other career fields, including acquisition management (63A), space ops (13S), weather (15W), intelligence (14N), engineering (62E), as well as the whole spectrum of rated AFSCs. For cadets seeking to pursue an advanced degree while on active duty, USAFA physics majors are highly competitive for graduate school due to the wide variety of scholarships and sponsorships available. Got your sights set even higher? One USAFA physics major – Dr. Ronald Sega, Class of 1974 – flew two missions on the Space Shuttle as a NASA astronaut and later went on to become the Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space.
So what do AF physicists actually do? Over their first 5-10 years on active duty, most 61Ds are assigned to work cutting edge research & development projects and next-generation weapon system acquisition programs under Air Force Materiel Command, Air Force Space Command, Air Force Special Operations Command and other major commands. These assignments may include experimental design and data analysis, launching new satellites, briefing members of Congress, and fielding state-of-the-art technologies. Bottom line: the Air Force depends critically on 61Ds for their scientific expertise, critical thinking skills, fresh perspectives and new ideas applied to the nation’s toughest (and often highly classified) technical challenges in the pursuit of maintaining US air, space and cyberspace dominance for decades to come.
For USAFA cadets choosing to major in physics, the journey begins spring semester of the sophomore year with Physics 264 (Modern Physics). The junior and senior years include courses like Classical Mechanics, Electromagnetic Theory, Laboratory Techniques, Thermodynamics, Computational Physics and Quantum Mechanics. Physics majors also choose three classes that constitute their “concentration”. Common choices include Astronomy, Laser Physics/Optics, Nuclear Physics, Nuclear Weapons and Strategy, and Space Physics, but an Applied Physics concentration allows the cadet to choose essentially any coherent sequence of three technical courses offered in either the physics department or another academic department. One of the more popular Applied Physics tracks is Pre-Med. There is also a well-established path to completing double-majors that include Physics. The most common is Physics/Math, but former physics students have also double-majored in Astronautical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and several others.
Beyond the classroom, physics majors have ample opportunity to participate in world-class scientific research and obtain academic credit through the Physics 499 course. Physics 499 can be taken anywhere between 1 and 3 credits per semester starting the junior year. DFP is home to 5 of USAFA’s 18 research centers with more than 40 faculty and full-time researchers executing dozens of diverse projects at any given time:
- Space and Atmospheric Research Center (SPARC):Designing, building, calibrating, operating and analyzing data from scientific payloads that fly in space; investigating the aurora, sprites in the middle atmosphere, and lightning in the lower atmosphere.
- Laser and Optics Research Center (LORC):Modeling, designing, and constructing new types of lasers and optics for potential use in future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, non-kinetic weapon systems and medical devices.
- Center for Physics Education Research (CPER):Assessing and implementing new techniques and tools to enrich the physics education process; developing new technologies for enhancing student learning, including student engagement applications and mobile technology submission tools.
- Center for Space Situational Awareness Research (CSSAR):Operationalizing the Falcon Telescope Network, twelve robotic 20-inch telescopes around the globe from Colorado to South Africa; scheduling observations, analyzing satellite and astronomical data collections.
- Astronomical Research Group and Observatory (ARGO): Collecting spectral and photometric images of stars with the 24-inch telescope at the USAFA Observatory; processing data to characterize orbital properties of previously unknown or unconfirmed exoplanets.
Over the course of 2.5 years completing the USAFA physics major, cadets develop a mastery of the most fundamental laws governing our universe — those same laws that dictate the F-35’s radar cross-section, GPS’s susceptibility to jamming, and the AIM-9’s maximum kill range. Ultimately, the physics major is tailored to prepare cadets for their primary role as future officers: solving unforeseen, abstract, complex, and ill-defined problems. Regardless of AFSC, cadets graduating from USAFA with a bachelor’s degree in physics enter active duty with great confidence in their abilities to conquer the many “unknowns” for which they’ll be responsible at their first assignment and beyond.
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