Electricity and Magnetism I Fall 2018

Course Learning Goals

Contact Information

Course communication

We will be using Slack for course communication this semester. Slack is a combination bullentin board, instant messaging, and file sharing system. It works with your computer as an app or in browser, and on your mobile device. You should have all received invitations to join our class Slack team: PHY 481 MSU F2018. I will post course notes, solutions, and other announcements through our Slack team, so you will want to join it. Also, please enjoy the giphy integration.

Link to Slack team

Help Sessions

We will hold weekly homework help sessions twice per week. These sessions are scheduled on:

  • Wednesdays from 5:00pm-6:30pm in 1300 BPS (Biomedical and Physical Sciences)
  • Thursdays from 4:30pm-6:00pm in A158 PSS (Plant Soil Science, just across Wilson Rd from BPS)


Physics 481, Electricity and Magnetism 1, is the first semester of our two-semester sequence of junior-level classical electromagnetism. It uses the tools of vector calculus for solving static and dynamic properties of electromagnetic fields. The topics we will cover include special cases of static charge distributions (electrostatics), time-independent current distributions (magnetostatics), electric and magnetic properties of matter (dielectrics and magnetic media), and, (time permitting) initial coverage of fully time-dependent problems (Maxwell’s equations). We have many learning goals in this course, which include content and mathematical skill mastery, high level problem-solving skills, physical sense-making, deepened conceptual understanding, communication skills, and connection to other courses and to the real world. Required Prerequisites: MTH 234 or MTH 254H or LB 220

Required purchases:

  1. J.D. Griffiths. Introduction to Electromagnetism, 4th Edition (Pearson; 2012). This book is pedagogically excellent and is my favorite undergrad textbook of them all! There are other editions that might be less expensive, and they can be substituted. But reading assignments will come from the 4th edition, which may have some different content.
  2. An “iClicker”, available at the bookstore, will be used every lecture.
Optional purchase:
  1. H.M. Schey. Div, Grad, Curl, and All That, 4th Edition (Norton and Company; 2004). This book is a great resource for developing a conceptual understanding of vector calculus. We will make extensive use of the ideas in this book.

Course Activities


Reading is an essential part of 481! Reading the text before class is very important. Lecture is to clarify your understanding, to help you make sense of the material. I will assume you have done the required readings in advance! Griffiths is one of the best (and most readable) texts I know of - it will make a huge difference if you spend the time and effort to carefully read and follow the text. The calendar has the details on reading assignments.

Class Meetings

Classroom Etiquette: Please turn off all cell phones and pagers when entering any classroom. Private chatter during lecture is very distracting, but it is perfectly OK to interrupt the lecture by raising your hand and yelling “Question!” Questions in lecture are always good, and are strongly encouraged!


There will be a homework due every Friday at the start of class. Late homework can’t be accepted once solutions are posted - but, your lowest score will be dropped. Homework is exceedingly important for developing an understanding of the course material, not to mention building skills in complex physical and mathematical problem solving. They will require considerable time and personal effort this term!

I strongly encourage collaboration, an essential skill in science and engineering (and highly valued by employers!) Social interactions are critical to scientists’ success – most good ideas grow out of discussions with colleagues, and essentially all physicists work as part of a group. Find partners and work on homework together. However, it is also important that you OWN the material. I strongly suggest you start homework by yourself (and that means really making an extended effort on every problem). Then work with a group, and finally, finish up on your own – write up your own work, in your own way. There will also be time for peer discussion during classes – as you work together, try to help your partners get over confusions, listen to them, ask each other questions, critique, teach each other. You will learn a lot this way! Note: While collaboration is the rule in technical work, evaluations of individuals also play an important role. Exams will be done without help from others. For all assignments, the work you turn in must in the end be your own: in your own words, reflecting your own understanding. (If, at any time, for any reason, you feel disadvantaged or isolated, contact me and I can discretely try to help arrange study groups.)

Computational Homework Problems: There will be some use of computation in this course on homework problems. I will encourage and support the use of Python (through Jupyter notebooks). You do not need any computational experience for this course as you will learn some fundamentals early on and keep using them throughout the course. You are welcome to use any environment of your choosing (e.g., Octave/MATLAB, Mathematica, C++), but I will only provide support for Python. Python is in use across the sciences, but it is becoming much used in physics, so learning it will serve you well in your future work. I suggest downloading the Anaconda distribution of Python as it comes with all the packages you will need to get up and running with Jupyter notebooks.

Installing Jupyter Notebooks

Help Sessions

(Times will be listed at the top of the syllabus) Help sessions/office hours are to facilitate your learning. We encourage attendance - plan on working in small groups, our role will be as learning coaches. Both sessions are homework-centric, but we will not be explicitly telling anyone how to do the homework (how would that help you learn?) I strongly encourage you to start all problems on your own. If you come to help sessions “cold”, the value of homework to you will be greatly reduced.

Grading and Exams

Your course grade is largely determined by a combination of your performance on exams and homework. There will be some extra credit for in-class and online participation, which basically “unweights” the exams.

Activity Date Percent of Grade
Exam 1 Wed. Oct. 3 (7pm-9pm) 20%
Exam 2 Wed. Nov. 7 (7pm-9pm) 20%
Final Exam Tues. Dec. 11 20%
Homework Fridays 40%


Clickers are pure extra credit. They will add up to 5 points to your lowest midterm. That is, take the total number of clicker question you answered (correct or not) and divide by the total number asked in class. I will add up that fraction of points up to 5 to your lowest midterm grade. Say you answer 90% of the clicker questions and your lowest midterm grade is an 80. Then, after the extra credit that midterm grade will be an 84.5% with the 4.5 point bonus from clickers (90% of 5 points).

Self register your clicker!


Exams will be held on the evenings as listed above. The reason for evenings exams is to give you the time to work a regular 50-minute exam without the time pressure of having less than 50 minutes to complete it. There are no makeups. You may not miss any exam except for reasons beyond your control, approved by Prof. Caballero (usually a confirmed medical problem with written documentation.) In the unusual case of an (at most, single) excused absence from midterms, I’ll use an average of your other exams. You may bring one side of a single sheet of 8.5 in. x 11 in. paper for each exam, with your own handwritten notes. Calculators with scientific notation are allowed and sometimes needed.

  • Exam 1 Wed. Oct. 3 (7-9pm) in BCH 101 (Biochem is just next to BPS)
  • Exam 2 Wed. Nov. 7 (7-9pm) in BPS 1415 (our classroom)

What we cover, and why:

Physics 481 covers topics in electricity and magnetism (E&M). It is the first semester of your second course in E&M (Physics 184/294H was the first), but the first course in a true field theory. Classical electrodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s equations) is one of the most successful physical theories that we presently have. While it is a classical theory (no quantum mechanical Uncertainty Principle here), its conflicts with Newtonian mechanics motivated Einstein’s development of Special Relativity. Thus, classical E&M is the first relativistically correct field theory. Also, Maxwell’s unification of electricity with magnetism (at first viewed as separate phenomena) was the first and grandest example of unification of forces in physics.

For these reasons, along with the sheer mathematical elegance and completeness of the theory, and its extraordinary (uncanny!) agreement with experiment, electromagnetism is an inspiration for the creation of other physical theories including quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, and indeed much of contemporary physics. Further, classical E&M is at the root of a huge number of practical applications. Most of the phenomena of everyday experience, sights, smells, texture, etc. arise from a balance of electromagnetic interactions and quantum mechanics. E&M is essential in understanding the physics behind electric power generation, electronics, optics, communications, (and on, and on!) We view the universe around us primarily via the electromagnetic radiation. Clearly, to understand the physical world, we need to understand electricity and magnetism!

Comments on preparation:

Physics 481 covers material you have seen before (Many of the topics stem from PHY 184/294H material) but at a higher level of conceptual and mathematical sophistication.

Therefore you should expect:

  • a large amount of material covered quickly.
  • no recitations, and few examples covered in lecture. Most homework problems are not similar to examples from class.
  • long, hard homework problems that usually cannot be completed by one individual alone.
  • challenging exams.

Physics 481 is a challenging, upper‐division physics course. Unlike more introductory courses, you are fully responsible for your own learning. In particular, you control the pace of the course by asking questions in class. I tend to speak quickly, and questions are important to slow down the lecture. This means that if you don’t understand something, it is your responsibility to ask questions. Attending class and the homework help sessions gives you an opportunity to ask questions. I am here to help you as much as possible, but I need your questions to know what you don’t understand.

Physics 481 covers some of the most important physics and mathematical methods in the field. Your reward for the hard work and effort will be learning important and elegant material that you will use over and over as a physics major. Here is what I have experienced, and heard from other faculty teaching upper division physics in the past:

  • most students reported spending a minimum of 10 hours per week on the homework
  • students who didn’t attend the homework help sessions often did poorly in the class.
  • students reported learning a tremendous amount in this class.

The course topics that we will cover in Physics 481 are among the greatest intellectual achievements of humans. Don’t be surprised if you have to think hard and work hard to master the material.

Spartan Code of Honor Academic Pledge

As a Spartan, I will strive to uphold values of the highest ethical standard. I will practice honesty in my work, foster honesty in my peers, and take pride in knowing that honor is worth more than grades. I will carry these values beyond my time as a student at Michigan State University, continuing the endeavor to build personal integrity in all that I do.

Handling Emergency Situations

In the event of an emergency arising within the classroom, Prof. Caballero will notify you of what actions that may be required to ensure your safety. It is the responsibility of each student to understand the evacuation, “shelter-in-place,” and “secure-in-place” guidelines posted in each facility and to act in a safe manner. You are allowed to maintain cellular devices in a silent mode during this course, in order to receive emergency SMS text, phone or email messages distributed by the university. When anyone receives such a notification or observes an emergency situation, they should immediately bring it to the attention of Prof. Caballero in a way that causes the least disruption. If an evacuation is ordered, please ensure that you do it in a safe manner and facilitate those around you that may not otherwise be able to safely leave. When these orders are given, you do have the right as a member of this community to follow that order. Also, if a shelter-in-place or secure-in-place is ordered, please seek areas of refuge that are safe depending on the emergency encountered and provide assistance if it is advisable to do so.