8.421 | Spring 2014 | Graduate

Atomic and Optical Physics I

Instructor Insights

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course 8.421 Atomic and Optical Physics I as it was taught by Professors Wolfgang Ketterle and Isaac Chuang in Spring 2014.

This graduate-level course is the first of a two-semester subject sequence that provides the foundations for contemporary research in selected areas of atomic and optical physics. Special attention is paid to topics relating to the interaction of radiation with atoms.

Course Outcomes

Course Goals for Students

The purpose of this two-semester subject sequence is to introduce graduate students to the concepts of atomic physics and to prepare them for cutting-edge research.

Possibilities for Further Study/Careers

Cold atoms are often used to address problems of condensed matter physics, so many students who take this subject sequence go on to take 8.511 Theory of Solids I and 8.512 Theory of Solids II. Some students take a course, taught by Eugene Demler at Harvard, called Special Topics in Condensed Matter Physics (PDF). Others go on to take courses in quantum computation.

Instructor Interview

In the following pages Wolfgang Ketterle describes various aspects of how he teaches 8.421 Atomic and Optical Physics I.

Learn more! In a video at the following Residential Digital Innovations page, Professor Ketterle describes how flipping his classroom transformed his teaching experience.

Curriculum Information


8.05 Quantum Physics II

Requirements Satisfied

This course may be applied toward a doctoral degree in physics with the approval of the candidate’s committee.


Atomic physics is taught every spring semester, alternating between 8.421 Atomic and Optical Physics I and 8.422 Atomic and Optical Physics II. Depending on when they matriculate, students begin with either 8.421 or 8.422. It is somewhat more logical to go from fundamental concepts to more advanced topics, but the reverse sequence also works well.


The students’ grades were based on the following activities:

  • 33% Problem Sets
  • 33% Midterm Quiz
  • 34% Term Paper

Instructor Insights on Assessment

Wolfgang Ketterle discusses how he assesses students’ writing.

Student Information


42 students.

Breakdown by Year

Predominantly graduate students

Breakdown by Major

Predominantly physics majors

Ideal Class Size

The class should include at least 10-15 students to allow for active discussions. 

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

In Class / Lecture

  • Met 2 times per week for 1.5 hours per session; 25 sessions total; voluntary attendance.
  • Lectures typically began with a brief summary of previously covered content, an introduction to the focus of the current lecture, and a preview of what would be covered next.
  • Lectures consisted of instructor-led presentations and questions from students.
  • Clicker questions were often used to gauge students’ understanding during lectures.


  • Met 1 time per week for 1 hour per session; 13 sessions total; voluntary attendance.
  • Teaching assistants presented advanced topics and additional connections to research.
  • Students received help with problem sets.

Out of class

  • Students completed readints, problem sets, and a term paper.

Course Team Roles

Lead Instructor (Prof. Wolfgang Ketterle)

  • Developed and delivered lectures
  • Assessed students’ term papers
  • Held office hours for consultations

Instructor (Prof. Isaac Chuang)

Online problem sets for the course were developed by Professor Chuang.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2014
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Problem Sets
Instructor Insights