PHS2081 - Atomic, nuclear and condensed matter physics - 2019

6 points, SCA Band 2, 0.125 EFTSL

Undergraduate - Unit

Refer to the specific census and withdrawal dates for the semester(s) in which this unit is offered.



Organisational Unit

School of Physics and Astronomy

Chief examiner(s)

Dr Scott Findlay


Dr Scott Findlay (unit coordinator)
Dr Istvan Laszlo (computational workshop coordinator)

Unit guides



  • First semester 2019 (On-campus)


One unit from PHS1022, PHS1002

and one unit from MTH1030, MTH1035 or ENG1005




The atomic physics sub-unit explores the development of our current understanding of the electronic properties of atoms. Much of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics were developed in response to the difficulties of reconciling observed physical phenomena with classical physics. This sub-unit introduces the wavefunction description for electronic orbitals as applied to hydrogenic atoms, and explains the concept of atomic magnetism, including magnetic coupling, which leads to an explanation for fine and hyperfine spectroscopic structure. The origin and nature of selection rules in various atomic systems is examined.

The nuclear physics sub-unit introduces a range of observable phenomena that result due to the structure of atomic nuclei, describes our current understanding of the constituents and structure of nuclei, and considers nuclear processes such as the various forms of radioactive decay, fission and fusion, and neutron-induced reactions. The concept of a reaction cross section is developed. The ubiquity and utility of conservation laws are emphasized, leading to an appreciation of the power of these tools for understanding nuclear phenomena.

The condensed matter physics sub-unit examines how fundamental properties of solid matter - such as electrical, mechanical and optical properties - arise from the atomistic and electronic structure of materials. The arrangement of atoms in solids is explored via diffraction and imaging. Correlations between properties such as hardness and melting point are understood through bonding and the cohesive energy. Electrical conduction is explored in detail through a series of increasingly complex models: classical free electron theory, quantum free electron theory and band theory. Concepts such as mobility, the Fermi level and the Fermi-Dirac distribution are thereby introduced in the context of simple systems like metals before being applied to more complex systems like semiconductors. Semiconductor physics is introduced, with a focus on the quantum technologies which it underpins, including solar cells, light emitting diodes and transistors.


On completion of this unit students will be able to:

  1. Describe and perform calculations appropriate to key concepts in atomic physics, including the model of angular momentum in hydrogenic atoms, the selection rules for allowed transitions in a range of atomic systems, the origin of fine and hyperfine structure, and the structure of the periodic table based on the electronic properties of atoms.
  2. Describe and perform calculations appropriate to key concepts in nuclear physics, including nuclear binding energy and stability, the origin of different types of radioactive decay, and whether nuclear processes will occur based on energy considerations.
  3. Describe and perform calculations appropriate to the classical free electron model, the quantum free electron model and the band theory model for electrical conduction in solids, and compare the strengths and shortcomings of these models.
  4. Demonstrate awareness of scientific computing methods and visualization.
  5. Acquire, manipulate and interpret physical data and write scientific reports at a level suitable for publication.


Examination (3 hours): 40%

Assignments, quizzes and computational workshops: 30%

Laboratory work: 30% (Hurdle)

Hurdle requirement: Students must achieve a pass mark in the laboratory work to achieve an overall pass grade.

Workload requirements

The workload to achieve the learning outcomes for this unit is 144 hours spread across the semester (roughly 12 hours per week) - approximately an even mixture of attendance at scheduled activities and self-scheduled study time. Learning activities comprise a mixture of instructor directed, peer directed and self-directed learning, which includes face-to-face and online engagement.

See also Unit timetable information

This unit applies to the following area(s) of study