Course Title: Fields, Waves and Light

Part A: Course Overview

Course Title: Fields, Waves and Light

Credit Points: 12.00

Course Code




Learning Mode

Teaching Period(s)


City Campus


135H Applied Sciences


Sem 2 2006,
Sem 2 2007,
Sem 2 2009,
Sem 2 2010

Course Coordinator: Prof James Macnae

Course Coordinator Phone: +61 3 9925 3401

Course Coordinator Email:

Course Coordinator Availability: email for appointment

Pre-requisite Courses and Assumed Knowledge and Capabilities

The course continues development of students’ expertise in electromagnetism and optics begun in first year with the Optics & Waves, and Fields & Relativity courses, which students are assumed to have done. Facility with vector calculus is also assumed, although a brief revision of this area is included.

Course Description

This course is part of the core theory component of streams leading to a Physics qualification in the BSc program of the School of Applied Sciences. It covers the mathematical and physical description of laws governing electromagnetic fields and waves, and examines some of their consequences particularly in the context of the behaviour of visible light. These topics are essential to the training of any physicist, since they deal with the fundamentals of one of the two great divisions of the physical universe: radiation and matter.
The course assumes a familiarity with the physics of electromagnetic radiation and optical phenomena at first year level. It develops these topics further, demonstrating the power of vector calculus in describing electrodynamics, and leads up to a study of Maxwell’s Equations and their implications. The student will explore the principles governing the generation and behaviour of static and dynamic electric and magnetic fields in free space and in matter. The fundamental phenomena of refraction, interference and diffraction of light are studied in detail.
Students completing this course will be well prepared for studies of theory and applications of electromagnetism and optics at third year level, particularly the core theory course in Photonics & Nuclear Physics. It is necessary background for some of the laboratory and project experiments in third year.

Objectives/Learning Outcomes/Capability Development

The primary capabilities developed by this course are:
Knowledge capability: knowledge of fundamental physics of electromagnetism and optics is developed to an intermediate level. Proficiency in mathematical calculations and derivations is also developed, particularly in the area of vector calculus.
Critical analysis and problem solving: students use conceptual models in conjunction with established theory to analyse problems and particular situations involving fields, waves and light.

The course covers the following topics:

  • Vector Analysis: Differential and integral vector calculus in curvilinear coordinates.
  • Static Electric Fields: Charges, electric fields, potentials and energy in vacuum and in a medium.
  • Static Magnetic Fields: Currents, magnetic fields, potentials and energy in vacuum and in a medium.
  • Time-Varying Fields: Induction, Maxwell’s Equations, power flow.
  • Electromagnetic Waves: Sinusoidal plane waves, in vacuum and in a medium.
  • Electromagnetic Radiation: The oscillating dipole.
  • Radiometry: Radiometric and photometric quantities and units, applications and examples.
  • Light in Matter: Maxwell’s equations in matter, attenuation and dispersion, Fresnel equations, transmission and reflection at dielectric interfaces.
  • Interference and Coherence: Two-beam interference, Michelson interferometer, multiple-beam interference, Fabry-Perot interferometer, temporal coherence and spectral bandwidth.
  • Diffraction: Diffraction integral, Fraunhofer diffraction and the Fourier transform, applications of the Fourier transform to diffraction problems, Fresnel diffraction and its applications.

Practice in working with these concepts and applying them to real situations is strongly emphasised.

On successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • conceptualize the behaviour of both static and time-varying electromagnetic fields with the aid of Maxwell’s Equations;
  • use these equations to solve a variety of electromagnetic problems;
  • understand and explain phenomena commonly encountered in the behaviour of light;
  • describe these phenomena both qualitatively and with the aid of mathematical formulations;
  • solve numerical and conceptual problems in optics, and
  • appreciate the practical consequences and uses of these phenomena in optical instrumentation.

Overview of Learning Activities

Students will learn in this course by:

  • attendance at lectures where material will be presented and explained, and the subject will be illustrated with demonstrations and examples;
  • private study, working through the theory as presented in lectures, texts and notes, and gaining practice at solving conceptual and numerical problems;
  • completing tutorial questions designed to give further practice in application of theory, and to give feedback on student progress and understanding;
  • completing written assignments consisting of numerical and other problems requiring an integrated understanding of the subject matter.

Overview of Learning Resources

Prescribed Texts

  • D F Griffiths, "Introduction to Electrodynamics", 3rd edition, Prentice-Hall, 1999.
  • Wilksch, P. & McGregor, K. "PHYS1073 - Fields, Waves & Light; Vol 1 - Fields & Waves". RMIT
  • Wilksch, P. "PHYS1073 - Fields, Waves & Light; Vol 2 - Light". RMIT

Klein, M V and Furtak, T E "Optics", 2nd edition, Wiley, 1986 (strongly recommended).
A list of other useful references will be provided.

Distributed Learning System (DLS)
The DLS is used extensively but not exclusively for announcements and communication, complete copies of lecture notes, supplementary resources, worked solutions to exercises, and copies of past exam papers.

Overview of Assessment

There will be ongoing assessment during the semester to encourage students to engage with the material and to give feedback on progress. This is done with several short assignments, including both conceptual and numerical problems. Some of this may be done with web-based assessment. A final examination will allow assessment of students’ overall achievement in the course. This will test mainly conceptual understanding of the material, with some shorter numerical and mathematical exercises.