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Physics: from classical to quantum

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This wide-ranging module teaches general physics with an emphasis both on the concepts and their basic numerical description, as well as their application. The module is presented in 25 units (plus a maths revision unit) that are delivered entirely via your computer - there are no printed books. It covers classical mechanics; electric and gravitational fields and potentials; electromagnetism and relativity; waves and optics; thermal and statistical physics; quantum physics and an introduction to its applications to solids, atoms and nuclei. Your problem-solving skills will be developed throughout the module and each unit is supported by animated diagrams, interactive graphs, online practical activities and audio/video clips. 

What you will study

In this wide-ranging online module you will learn, among other things:

  • How classical mechanics allows us to, for example, describe the motion of roller coasters, athletes and pendulums; predict the motion of satellites, pulleys and downhill skiers using Newton’s laws.
  • How to apply the concepts of work and energy to launching rockets and shock absorbers and many other processes.
  • How energy and momentum conservation laws are used to understand collisions, from those of subatomic particles to car crashes.
  • What electric and gravitational forces, fields and potentials are and how they explain lightning storms, cling film, planetary motion, and the life and death of stars.
  • How to describe electric currents and circuits, from the domestic electricity supply to electrocardiograms.
  • How to describe magnetic fields and their role in radios, electric motors and electric generators.
  • How special relativity explains why moving fast propels you into the future.
  • How an understanding of sound waves and electromagnetic waves explains why musical instruments emit a range of noises and why butterfly wings display a range of colours.
  • How telescopes and microscopes work allowing us to see the very distant and the very small.
  • How the properties of gases and solids are described, both from a macroscopic and a microscopic perspective, to explain, for example, hot air balloons and the structure of diamonds.
  • Why, in physics, you can’t win, you can only break even; you can break even only at absolute zero; but you can’t reach absolute zero!
  • Why unsolved problems in the interaction of light and matter led to the development of quantum physics in the early 20th century
  • How Schrödinger’s cat can be both dead and alive at the same time.
  • How quantum physics allows us to understand the structure of atoms and how electrons behave like particles and waves.
  • How statistical thermodynamic explains the formation of Bose-Einstein condensates
  • What semiconducting materials are, how they work and what they are used for
  • What nuclei are made of, what makes them stable and how they break.
  • What leptons, hadrons and quarks are and how they interact.
This module is delivered entirely online, with audio, video and interactive activities integrated throughout.

Entry requirements

This OU level 2 module offers an accessible route into physics, suitable for students from a range of backgrounds. However, to successfully complete the module you do need some basic mathematical, scientific and study skills.

You should be familiar with basic algebraic manipulation (rearranging and combining equations etc.); addition and multiplication of fractions; scientific notation; logarithms; elementary geometry and trigonometry; and with scientific uses of statistics and probability. You should also be able to plot and interpret graphs, use a scientific calculator, and understand the use of unit (dimensional) analysis. A familiarity with the elementary concepts of vectors, trigonometric functions and calculus (differentiation) is also an advantage.

A good level of mathematical knowledge can be obtained by studying the OU Level 1 module Essential mathematics (MST124). In terms of scientific and study skills, you'll be adequately prepared if you've passed Physics and space (SM123), Questions in science (S111) or Exploring science (S104) (now discontinued).

If you have any doubts about the module's suitability for you, talk to an adviser.

Preparatory work

A sound mathematical background will significantly enhance your chances of enjoying and passing the module. Studying Essential mathematics 1 (MST124) before S217 will give you a stronger grounding in the required mathematics, allowing you to concentrate on understanding physics concepts and developing other skills during the module. This is particularly recommended if you intend to go further in your physics studies. The STEM Faculty has produced some interactive material Are You Ready For S217? to help you to decide whether you already have the experience to start the module.

What's included

We designed Physics: from classical to quantum (S217) for online delivery – you’ll access all the study material from the module website. There are no printed materials; however, you can download PDFs of every unit to use offline or print. You can also use the University’s print on demand service – read more about it in our Computing Guide. In addition, we’ve provided tips for studying online-only modules in our Help Centre.

You will need

A scientific calculator.

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either:

  • Windows 7 or higher
  • Mac OS X 10.7 or higher

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. There will also be online tutorials and forums.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

You will, however, be granted the option of submitting on paper if typesetting electronically or merging scanned images of your answers to produce an electronic TMA would take you an unacceptably long time.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S217 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Physics: from classical to quantum (S217) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2019. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2022.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

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