Location: Bowdoin / Karen Topp


Karen A. Topp

Senior Lecturer in Physics

Contact Information

Physics and Astronomy

Searles Science Building - 302

Teaching this semester

PHYS 1140. Introductory Physics II

An introduction to the interactions of matter and radiation. Topics include the classical and quantum physics of electromagnetic radiation and its interaction with matter, quantum properties of atoms, and atomic and nuclear spectra. Laboratory work (three hours per week) includes an introduction to the use of electronic instrumentation.

Karen Topp


  • Post-doctoral Research Associate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2000-2001
    Design and implementation of 2DLC data acquisition hardware and software
  • Post-doctoral Research Fellow, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1997-2000
    Interaction of ultrasound with biological tissue
  • Ph.D., Physics, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 1996
    Thesis title: “Effect of Random Strains on Tunneling States in Crystals”
  • B.Sc. (Honors), Physics, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, 1989
    Awarded Queen’s University Medal in Physics


My focus is teaching entry-level courses in the sciences that are as accessible, engaging, and un-intimidating as possible, while still providing solid grounding in physics concepts, mathematical reasoning, and problem solving. I am interested in developing and supporting programs which make the natural sciences more accessible for under-represented groups; as such, I co-directed from 2008 to 2012 the Bowdoin Science Experience, a pre-orientation program designed to help incoming 1st year students from under-represented groups who are interested in the sciences. 

I am also very interested in physics education, and encourage interested physics majors to consider careers as high school physics teachers.  Skilled and enthusiastic college graduates can make an enormous difference in young people's appreciation and ability in early science classes, and the United States has a severe, long-term shortage of qualified physics secondary school teachers. In light of this, I approached faculty in the Bowdoin Education department in 2014, and together we developed a Physics and Education Interdisciplinary major to encourage and support students interested in this path. It was proposed to the administration within a year, and approved by unanimous vote of the Bowdoin College faculty in December 2015.

Physics 1082 Physics of Musical Sound
MusicThis course explores “how music works” from a physics point of view – what generates sound, how it propagates, and how it is measured and characterized. Although we focus primarily on the physical “laws” describing sound, the study of musical sound (or musical acoustics) is actually an interdisciplinary subject that includes the physiology of the ear, the psychology of how the brain interprets the ear’s signals, and some elements of music theory. The course starts with basic elements of acoustics, and then continues by studying the particular sounds of various types of musical instruments and the human voice.

Physics 2130 Electric Fields and Circuits
The essential phenomena of the electromagnetic interaction are introduced. The basic relations are then specialized for a more detailed study of linear circuit theory. Laboratory work stresses the fundamentals of electronic instrumentation and measurement with basic circuit components such as resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes, and transistors.

Physics 1130 Introductory Physics I

Physics 1140 Introductory Physics II

Physics 1510 Introductory Astronomy



Refereed Journals

K.A. Topp and R.O. Pohl, “Tunneling states in strained alkali halide crystals containing CN − ions,” Phys. Rev. B, 66, 064204, (2002).

K.A. Topp, J.F. Zachary, and W.D. O’Brien, Jr., “Quantifying B-mode Images of in vivo Rat Mammary Tumor with Frequency Dependence of Backscatter,” J. Ultrasound Med. 20, 605-612 (2001).

K.A. Topp and W.D. O’Brien, Jr., “Anisotropy of ultrasonic propagation and scattering properties in fresh rat skeletal muscle in vitro,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 107, 1027-1033 (2000).

E.L. Madsen et al. (incl. K.A. Topp), “Interlaboratory comparison of ultrasonic backscatter, attenuation, and speed measurements,” J. Ultrasound Med. 18, 615-631 (1999).

K.A. Topp, E. Thompson, and R.O. Pohl, “Glasslike excitations in chemically disordered crystals: Alkali-earth lanthanum fluoride mixed crystals,” Phys. Rev. B 60, 898-908 (1999).

K.A. Topp and D.G. Cahill, “Elastic properties of several amorphous solids and disordered crystals below 100 K,” Z. Phys. B 101, 235-245 (1996).

J.R. Olson, K.A. Topp, and R.O. Pohl, “Specific heat and thermal conductivity of solid fullerenes,” Science 259, 1145-1148 (1993).

Conference Proceedings

W.D. O’Brien, Jr., J.F. Zachary, D.A. Payne, P. Han, C. Liu, K.A. Topp, and B.-S. Sun, “In vivo microprobe for tumor diagnosis,” (invited poster). Biomedical Imaging Symposium: Visualizing the Future of Biology and Medicine. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD June 25-26, 1999.

K.A. Topp and W.D. O’Brien, Jr., “Anisotropy of ultrasonic parameters in fresh rat skeletal muscle in vitro,” 1998 IEEE International Ultrason. Symp. Proc. (Sendai, Japan), 1369-1372 (1998).

S. Abens, K.A. Topp, S. Sahling, and R.O. Pohl, “Low temperature properties of calcia-stabilized zirconia single crystal,” 21 st International Conference on Low Temperature Physics, Czech. J. Physics 46, 2259-2260 (1996).

K. A. Topp, B. E. White Jr., J. E. Freund, and R. O. Pohl, “Low temperature internal friction of bulk and thin film fullerenes,” Bul l. Am. Phys. Soc. 39, 274 (1994)

B.E. White Jr., J.E. Freund, K.A. Topp, and R.O. Pohl, “Low temperature internal friction of thin film fullerenes,” Science and Technology of Fullerene Materials. Symp. Proc. Mater. Res. Soc. (Pittsburgh, PA), 411-416 (1995).