International Baccalaureate

Core Syllabus

Home     Additional Higher Level   Options

Measurements   Mechanics   Thermal Physics   Waves

Electricity and Magnetism   Circular Motion and Gravitation   Atomic, Particle, and Nuclear Physics   Energy Production

The Core Syllabus has topics in each of the four options.  You take one of the options.  If you are lucky enough to be in a centre with four physics groups, you may have the opportunity to choose the option you do.  In most schools and colleges,  the tutor will choose it for you.

Note:  The syllabus statements about the following have been omitted for space reasons:

  • Nature of Science;

  • International mindedness;

  • Theory of knowledge;

  • Utilisation;

  • Aims.

You can find these statements in the syllabus.

Guidance shown like this is extra guidance from me, not the syllabus.

In the exam, you are expected to understand:

Topic 1 - Measurements and Uncertainties

1.1 Measurements in Physics




Equations Link

Fundamental and derived SI units;

Scientific notation and metric multipliers;

Significant figures;

Orders of magnitude



Using SI units in the correct format for all required measurements, final answers to calculations and presentation of raw and processed data;

Using scientific notation and metric multipliers;

Quoting and comparing ratios, values and approximations to the nearest order of magnitude;

Estimating quantities to an appropriate number of significant figures.

SI unit usage and information can be found at the website of Bureau
International des Poids et Mesures

Students will not need to know the definition of SI units except where
explicitly stated in the relevant topics in this guide;

Candela is not a required SI unit for this course;

Guidance on any use of non-SI units such as eV, MeV c-2, ly and pc will be
provided in the relevant topics in this guide.

You are expected to use equations as a matter of course in all your work.

Induction 0



Induction 1

(Symbols and Units)


Induction 2

(Significant Figures)


Induction 3



Induction 8

(Orders of Magnitude)

1.2  Uncertainties and Errors

Random and systematic errors;

Absolute, fractional and percentage uncertainties;

Error bars;

Uncertainty of gradient and intercepts.

Explaining how random and systematic errors can be identified and reduced;

Collecting data that include absolute and/or fractional uncertainties and stating these as an uncertainty range (expressed as: best estimate ± uncertainty range);

Propagating uncertainties through calculations involving addition,
subtraction, multiplication, division and raising to a power;

Determining the uncertainty in gradients and intercepts

Analysis of uncertainties will not be expected for trigonometric or logarithmic functions in examinations.


You should look at Induction 7 for expected standards in presentation.


You should look at Induction 9 for the use of ICT in your course.


You are advised to review the Induction section from time to time throughout your course.

Induction 4



Induction 5

(Basic Graphical Skills)


Induction 6

(Further Graphical Skills)


Induction 7



Induction 9


1.3  Vectors and Scalars

Vector and scalar quantities;


Combination and resolution of vectors.

Solving vector problems graphically and algebraically.

Resolution of vectors will be limited to two perpendicular directions;

Problems will be limited to addition and subtraction of vectors and the
multiplication and division of vectors by scalars.

Mechanics 1

(Vectors and Scalars)


Topic 2  Mechanics

2.1  Motion




Equations Link

Distance and displacement;


Speed and velocity;




Graphs describing motion;


Equations of motion for uniform acceleration;


Projectile motion;


Fluid resistance and terminal speed.

Determining instantaneous and average values for velocity, speed and acceleration;

Solving problems using equations of motion for uniform acceleration;

Sketching and interpreting motion graphs;


Determining the acceleration of free-fall experimentally;

Analysing projectile motion, including the resolution of vertical and horizontal components of acceleration, velocity and displacement;

Qualitatively describing the effect of fluid resistance on falling objects or
projectiles, including reaching terminal speed.

Calculations will be restricted to those neglecting air resistance;

Projectile motion will only involve problems using a constant value of g close to the surface of the Earth;

The equation of the path of a projectile will not be required.

Mechanics 6



Mechanics 7

(Terminal Velocity)


Mechanics 8

(Friction and Drag)


Mechanics 9

(Projectile Motion)

2.2  Forces

Objects as point particles;


Free-body diagrams;


Translational equilibrium;


Newton’s laws of motion;


Solid friction

Representing forces as vectors;


Sketching and interpreting free-body diagrams;

Describing the consequences of Newton’s first law for translational

Using Newton’s second law quantitatively and qualitatively;

Identifying force pairs in the context of Newton’s third law;

Solving problems involving forces and determining resultant force;

Describing solid friction (static and dynamic) by coefficients of friction.

Students should label forces using commonly accepted names or symbols (for example: weight or force of gravity or mg );

Free-body diagrams should show scaled vector lengths acting from the point of application;

Examples and questions will be limited to constant mass;

mg should be identified as weight;

Calculations relating to the determination of resultant forces will be restricted to one- and two-dimensional situations.

Mechanics 1

(Vectors and Scalars)


Mechanics 2

(Free Body Diagrams and Equilibrium)


Mechanics 8

(Friction and Drag)


Mechanics 10

(Newton's Laws)

2.3  Work, Energy, and Power

Kinetic energy;

Gravitational potential energy;

Elastic potential energy;

Work done as energy transfer;

Power as rate of energy transfer;

Principle of conservation of energy;


Discussing the conservation of total energy within energy transformations;

Sketching and interpreting force–distance graphs;

Determining work done including cases where a resistive force acts;

Solving problems involving power;

Quantitatively describing efficiency in energy transfers.

Cases where the line of action of the force and the displacement are not
parallel should be considered;

Examples should include force–distance graphs for variable forces.

Mechanics 13

(Work, Energy, and Power)


Mechanics 14



Mechanics 15

(Conservation of Energy)


Materials 2

(Elastic Potential Energy)

2.4  Momentum and Impulse

Newton’s second law expressed in terms of rate of change of momentum;

Impulse and force–time graphs;

Conservation of linear momentum;

Elastic collisions, inelastic collisions and explosions.

Applying conservation of momentum in simple isolated systems including (but not limited to) collisions, explosions, or water jets;

Using Newton’s second law quantitatively and qualitatively in cases where mass is not constant;

Sketching and interpreting force–time graphs;

Determining impulse in various contexts including (but not limited to) car safety and sports;

Qualitatively and quantitatively comparing situations involving elastic collisions, inelastic collisions and explosions.

Students should be aware that F = ma is equivalent of F = Δp/Δt only when mass
is constant;

Solving simultaneous equations involving conservation of momentum and
energy in collisions will not be required;

Calculations relating to collisions and explosions will be restricted to one-dimensional situations;

A comparison between energy involved in inelastic collisions (in which kinetic
energy is not conserved) and the conservation of (total) energy should be made.

Mechanics 11

(Momentum and Impulse)


Mechanics 12

(Conservation of momentum)




Topic 3  Thermal Physics

3.1  Thermal Concepts




Equations Link

Molecular theory of solids, liquids and gases;


Temperature and absolute temperature;


Internal energy;


Specific heat capacity;


Phase change;


Specific latent heat.

Describing temperature change in terms of internal energy;


Using Kelvin and Celsius temperature scales and converting between them;


Applying the calorimetric techniques of specific heat capacity or specific
latent heat experimentally;


Describing phase change in terms of molecular behaviour;

Sketching and interpreting phase change graphs;

Calculating energy changes involving specific heat capacity and specific latent heat of fusion and vaporisation.

Internal energy is taken to be the total intermolecular potential energy + the
total random kinetic energy of the molecules;


Phase change graphs may have axes of temperature versus time or temperature versus energy;

The effects of cooling should be understood qualitatively but cooling
correction calculations are not required.

Thermal 1

(Heat Flow)

3.2  Modelling a Gas


Equation of state for an ideal gas;

Kinetic model of an ideal gas;

Mole, molar mass and the Avogadro constant;

Differences between real and ideal gases.

Solving problems using the equation of state for an ideal gas and gas laws;


Sketching and interpreting changes of state of an ideal gas on pressure–
volume, pressure–temperature and volume–temperature diagrams;


Investigating at least one gas law experimentally.

Students should be aware of the assumptions that underpin the molecular
kinetic theory of ideal gases;


Gas laws are limited to constant volume, constant temperature, constant
pressure and the ideal gas law;

Students should understand that a real gas approximates to an ideal gas at
conditions of low pressure, moderate temperature and low density.

Thermal 2

(Ideal Gases)


Thermal 3

(Kinetic Theory)



Topic 4  Waves

4.1  Oscillations




Equations Link

Simple harmonic oscillations;


Time period, frequency, amplitude, displacement and phase difference;

Conditions for simple harmonic motion.

Qualitatively describing the energy changes taking place during one cycle of an oscillation;

Sketching and interpreting graphs of simple harmonic motion examples.

Graphs describing simple harmonic motion should include displacement–
time, velocity–time, acceleration–time and acceleration–displacement;


Students are expected to understand the significance of the negative sign in
the relationship: a − x .

Further Mechanics 4


4.2  Travelling Waves

Travelling waves;

Wavelength, frequency, period and wave speed;

Transverse and longitudinal waves;


The nature of electromagnetic waves;


The nature of sound waves.

Explaining the motion of particles of a medium when a wave passes through it for both transverse and longitudinal cases;

Sketching and interpreting displacement–distance graphs and displacement–time graphs for transverse and longitudinal waves;

Solving problems involving wave speed, frequency and wavelength;

Investigating the speed of sound experimentally.

Students will be expected to derive the equation c = f λ;


Students should be aware of the order of magnitude of the wavelengths of
radio, microwave, infra-red, visible, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma rays.


In the notes, travelling waves are referred to as progressive waves.

c = f λ

Waves 1

(Wave Features)


Waves 2

(Transverse and Longitudinal)

4.3 Wave Characteristics

Wavefronts and rays;


Amplitude and intensity;




Sketching and interpreting diagrams involving wavefronts and rays;

Solving problems involving amplitude, intensity and the inverse square law;

Sketching and interpreting the superposition of pulses and waves;

Describing methods of polarization;

Sketching and interpreting diagrams illustrating polarized, reflected and
transmitted beams;

Solving problems involving Malus’s law.

Students will be expected to calculate the resultant of two waves or pulses
both graphically and algebraically;

Methods of polarization will be restricted to the use of polarizing filters and reflection from a non-metallic plane surface.

Waves 1



Waves 2



Waves 3



Physics 6 Tutorial 6

(Mathematical Analysis)


Physics 6 Tutorial 8

(More Polarisation)

4.4  Wave Behaviour

Reflection and refraction;


Snell’s law, critical angle and total internal reflection;


Diffraction through a single-slit and around objects;


Interference patterns;


Double-slit interference;


Path difference.

Sketching and interpreting incident, reflected and transmitted waves at
boundaries between media;


Solving problems involving reflection at a plane interface;


Solving problems involving Snell’s law, critical angle and total internal


Determining refractive index experimentally;


Qualitatively describing the diffraction pattern formed when plane waves are incident normally on a single-slit;


Quantitatively describing double-slit interference intensity patterns

Quantitative descriptions of refractive index are limited to light rays passing
between two or more transparent media. If more than two media, only
parallel interfaces will be considered;

Students will not be expected to derive the double-slit equation;

Students should have the opportunity to observe diffraction and interference
patterns arising from more than one type of wave

Waves 6

(Reflection and Refraction)


Waves 7



Waves 8



Physics 6 Tutorial 7

(More Interference)

4.5  Standing Waves

The nature of standing waves;

Boundary conditions;

Nodes and antinodes.

Describing the nature and formation of standing waves in terms of


Distinguishing between standing and travelling waves;


Observing, sketching and interpreting standing wave patterns in strings and pipes;


Solving problems involving the frequency of a harmonic, length of the standing wave and the speed of the wave.

Students will be expected to consider the formation of standing waves from
the superposition of no more than two waves;


Boundary conditions for strings are: two fixed boundaries; fixed and free
boundary; two free boundaries;


Boundary conditions for pipes are: two closed boundaries; closed and open
boundary; two open boundaries;


For standing waves in air, explanations will not be required in terms of pressure nodes and pressure antinodes;

The lowest frequency mode of a standing wave is known as the first harmonic;

The terms fundamental and overtone will not be used in examination questions.


These terms are used in the notes.


Waves 3



Waves 4

(Standing Waves)


Waves 5

(Musical Sounds)




Topic 5  Electricity and Magnetism

5.1  Electric Fields




Equations Link



Electric field;


Coulomb’s law;


Electric current;


Direct current (dc);


Potential difference

Identifying two forms of charge and the direction of the forces between them;


Solving problems involving electric fields and Coulomb’s law;


Calculating work done in an electric field in both joules and electronvolts;


Identifying sign and nature of charge carriers in a metal;


Identifying drift speed of charge carriers;


Solving problems using the drift speed equation;


Solving problems involving current, potential difference and charge

Students will be expected to apply Coulomb’s law for a range of permittivity

Fields 4

(Electric Force Fields)


Fields 5

(Energy in Fields)


Electricity 1

(Electrical Quantities)


Electricity 4

(Drift Speed)

5.2  Heating Effects of Electric Currents

Circuit diagrams;


Kirchhoff’s circuit laws;


Heating effect of current and its consequences;


Resistance expressed as R = V/I ;

Ohm’s law;




Power dissipation

Drawing and interpreting circuit diagrams;


Identifying ohmic and non-ohmic conductors through a consideration of the V/I characteristic graph;


Solving problems involving potential difference, current, charge, Kirchhoff’s circuit laws, power, resistance and resistivity;


Investigating combinations of resistors in parallel and series circuits;


Describing ideal and non-ideal ammeters and voltmeters;


Describing practical uses of potential divider circuits, including the advantages of a potential divider over a series resistor in controlling a simple circuit;

Investigating one or more of the factors that affect resistance experimentally.

The filament lamp should be described as a non-ohmic device; a metal wire at
a constant temperature is an ohmic device;


The use of non-ideal voltmeters is confined to voltmeters with a constant but finite resistance;


The use of non-ideal ammeters is confined to ammeters with a constant but non-zero resistance;


Application of Kirchhoff’s circuit laws will be limited to circuits with a maximum number of two source-carrying loops.


The potential divider may be referred to as a voltage divider.

Electricity 1

(Circuit diagrams and meters)


Electricity 2

(Ohm's Law)


Electricity 3

(VI graphs)


Electricity 4



Electricity 5

(Heating Effect)


Electricity 6

(Transducers and Potential Dividers)


Electricity 7

(Series and Parallel Circuits, and Kirchhoff)


5.3  Electric Cells



Internal resistance;


Secondary cells;


Terminal potential difference;


Electromotive force (emf).

Investigating practical electric cells (both primary and secondary;


Describing the discharge characteristic of a simple cell (variation of terminal
potential difference with time);

Identifying the direction of current flow required to recharge a cell;

Determining internal resistance experimentally;

Solving problems involving emf, internal resistance and other electrical quantities.

Students should recognize that the terminal potential difference of a typical
practical electric cell loses its initial value quickly, has a stable and constant
value for most of its lifetime, followed by a rapid decrease to zero as the cell
discharges completely.

Electricity 1



Electricity 8

(Internal Resistance)


5.4  Magnetic Effects of Electric Currents

Magnetic fields;


Magnetic force.

Determining the direction of force on a charge moving in a magnetic field;


Determining the direction of force on a current-carrying conductor in a
magnetic field;


Sketching and interpreting magnetic field patterns;


Determining the direction of the magnetic field based on current direction;


Solving problems involving magnetic forces, fields, current and charges.

Magnetic field patterns will be restricted to long straight conductors, solenoids, and bar magnets.

Magnetic Fields 1

(Magnetic Force Fields)


Magnetic Fields 3

(Forces on Charges)


Topic 6  Circular Motion and Gravitation

6.1  Circular Motion




Equations Link

Period, frequency, angular displacement and angular velocity;


Centripetal force;


Centripetal acceleration.

Identifying the forces providing the centripetal forces such as tension, friction, gravitational, electrical, or magnetic;


Solving problems involving centripetal force, centripetal acceleration, period, frequency, angular displacement, linear speed and angular velocity;


Qualitatively and quantitatively describing examples of circular motion including cases of vertical and horizontal circular motion.

Banking will be considered qualitatively only.

Further Mechanics 1

(Circular Motion)


Further Mechanics 2


6.2  Newton's Laws of Gravitation

Newton’s law of gravitation;


Gravitational field strength.

Describing the relationship between gravitational force and centripetal force;


Applying Newton’s law of gravitation to the motion of an object in circular
orbit around a point mass;


Solving problems involving gravitational force, gravitational field strength, orbital speed and orbital period;


Determining the resultant gravitational field strength due to two bodies.

Newton’s law of gravitation should be extended to spherical masses of
uniform density by assuming that their mass is concentrated at their centre;


Gravitational field strength at a point is the force per unit mass experienced by
a small point mass at that point;

Calculations of the resultant gravitational field strength due to two bodies will
be restricted to points along the straight line joining the bodies.

Fields 1

(Gravity Fields)


Fields 3



Topic 7  Atomic, Particle, and Nuclear Physics

7.1  Discrete Energy and Radioactivity




Equations Link

Discrete energy and discrete energy levels;


Transitions between energy levels;


Radioactive decay;


Fundamental forces and their properties;


Alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays;




Absorption characteristics of decay particles;




Background radiation.

Describing the emission and absorption spectrum of common gases;


Solving problems involving atomic spectra, including calculating the
wavelength of photons emitted during atomic transitions;


Completing decay equations for alpha and beta decay;


Determining the half-life of a nuclide from a decay curve;


Investigating half-life experimentally (or by simulation)

Students will be required to solve problems on radioactive decay involving
only integral numbers of half-lives;


Students will be expected to include the neutrino and antineutrino in beta
decay equations.


Fluorescence is discussed in Quantum 5

Particles 1



Particles 2



Particles 3

(Electromagnetic Rays)


Particles 5

(Fundamental Forces)


Quantum 3

(Ionised and Excited Atoms)


Quantum 4

(Energy levels)

7.2  Nuclear Reactions

The unified atomic mass unit;


Mass defect and nuclear binding energy;


Nuclear fission and nuclear fusion

Solving problems involving mass defect and binding energy;


Solving problems involving the energy released in radioactive decay, nuclear fission and nuclear fusion;


Sketching and interpreting the general shape of the curve of average binding energy per nucleon against nucleon number

Students must be able to calculate changes in terms of mass or binding


Binding energy may be defined in terms of energy required to completely
separate the nucleons or the energy released when a nucleus is formed from its nucleons.


Nuclear Power is discussed in Nuclear 8

ΔE = Δmc 2

Nuclear 7

(Mass and Energy)

7.3  The Structure of Matter

Quarks, leptons and their antiparticles;


Hadrons, baryons and mesons;


The conservation laws of charge, baryon number, lepton number and strangeness;


The nature and range of the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and
electromagnetic force;

Exchange particles;


Feynman diagrams;




The Higgs boson.

Describing the Rutherford-Geiger-Marsden experiment that led to the
discovery of the nucleus;


Applying conservation laws in particle reactions;

Describing protons and neutrons in terms of quarks;


Comparing the interaction strengths of the fundamental forces, including


Describing the mediation of the fundamental forces through exchange particles;


Sketching and interpreting simple Feynman diagrams;

Describing why free quarks are not observed.

A qualitative description of the standard model is required.

Particles 6

(Particles and Antiparticles)


Particles 7



Particles 8



Particles 9



Particles 10



Particles 11



Particles 12

(Exchange Particles)


Topic 8  Energy Production

8.1  Energy Sources




Equations Link

Specific energy and energy density of fuel sources;


Sankey diagrams;


Primary energy sources;


Electricity as a secondary and versatile form of energy;


Renewable and non-renewable energy sources

Solving specific energy and energy density problems;


Sketching and interpreting Sankey diagrams;


Describing the basic features of fossil fuel power stations, nuclear power stations, wind generators, pumped storage hydroelectric systems and solar power cells;

Solving problems relevant to energy transformations in the context of these generating systems;


Discussing safety issues and risks associated with the production of
nuclear power;

Describing the differences between photovoltaic cells and solar
heating panels

Specific energy has units of J kg–1; energy density has units of J m–3 .

The description of the basic features of nuclear power stations must include
the use of control rods, moderators and heat exchangers;

Derivation of the wind generator equation is not required but an awareness of relevant assumptions and limitations is required;

Students are expected to be aware of new and developing technologies
which may become important during the life of this guide.


In the notes, calorific value is used rather than specific energy.

Mechanics 14

(Sankey Diagrams)


Mechanics 15

(Energy Sources)


Nuclear 8

(Nuclear Power)


Physics 6 Tutorial 12

(Energy Sources)


Physics 6 Tutorial 13

(Fuel Cells)

8.2  Thermal Energy Transfer

Conduction, convection and thermal radiation;


Black-body radiation;


Albedo and emissivity;


The solar constant;


The greenhouse effect;


Energy balance in the Earth surface–atmosphere system.

Sketching and interpreting graphs showing the variation of intensity with wavelength for bodies emitting thermal radiation at different temperatures;


Solving problems involving the Stefan–Boltzmann law and Wien’s
displacement law;

Describing the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere on the mean surface


Solving problems involving albedo, emissivity, solar constant and the Earth’s average temperature.

Discussion of conduction and convection will be qualitative only;


Discussion of conduction is limited to intermolecular and electron collisions;


Discussion of convection is limited to simple gas or liquid transfer via density


The absorption of infrared radiation by greenhouse gases should be described
in terms of the molecular energy levels and the subsequent emission of
radiation in all directions


The greenhouse gases to be considered are CH4, H2O, CO2 and N2O. It is
sufficient for students to know that each has both natural and man-made


Earth’s albedo varies daily and is dependent on season (cloud formations)
and latitude. The global annual mean albedo will be taken to be 0.3 (30%)
for Earth.

Core Physics 3

(Conduction, Convection, and Radiation)


Physics 6 Tutorial 11

(Global Temperatures)


And that is it for the Core syllabus.