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Physics 171, Physics and Society, Fall 2017

Course evaluations
Please provide your course evaluation at the course evals website. The site is open from Dec 4 to Dec 20.


The course meets on Tuesday and Thursday at 1pm - 2:30pm in Crow 204.


Instructor: Prof. Mark Alford
Office: Compton 358; 
Office hour: Monday, 11am to noon
Students are also welcome to make appointments to see Prof. Alford at other times.
Assistant: James Johnson
Help session: Monday 5:30pm to 6:30pm in Crow 121
Directions to help session: enter Crow south entrance (facing Cupples and Brookings) and immediately go down the stairs. At the bottom, turn left. Crow 121 will be on your left just before the end of the corridor.
Class email:


In this course, we will be using the i>Clicker for in-class quizzes and discussions.

Gmail (Google) account

In order to complete the online assignments, every student must have a Google account. If you need to create one, use this website.

The account can be in a name that bears no relation to your real name, but to give you credit we may ask you to tell us the account name. You can abandon the account at the end of the course.


Physics and Technology for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller, ISBN 978-0-691-13504-5
You must own a copy of this book: the course will follow it closely.
Note that this is the textbook whose cover looks like the picture shown here. Do not confuse it with the best-selling popular book "Physics for Future Presidents".

Tell us about errors:
If you find a mistake in the textbook, or even just a place where the explanation is unhelpful, please tell the professor, either in person or via the course email address. Your feedback can influence future editions.
Picture of book cover

This course will cover selected chapters from the textbook.

Chapter 1: Energy and Power
Chapter 2: Atoms and Heat
Chapter 4: Nuclei and Radioactivity
Chapter 5: Chain reactions, Nuclear Reactors, and Atomic Bombs
Chapter 10: Climate Change


Review homework: Current All assigned so far

Instructions for writing a short report


All in-class quizzes

Required reading (may be tested in quizzes and exams):

Relevant videos:

Optional extra material:


18 Sept 2017, 6pm Panel discussion on climate change as part of Wash U Assembly Series.
28 Sept 2017, 6pm Christian Parenti on The Climate Crisis, Political Pessimism, and Realistic Solutions, part of Wash U Assembly Series.
spring 2018 Wash U 3rd Annual Climate Change Negotiations, organized by Washington University Students International Collaboration on the Environment (WUSICE).
These negotiations let students represent a country and work on the actual text that was debated at COP 21 (which produced the Paris Agreement). There will be speakers and additional opportunities for students to learn more about how the UNFCCC and this year’s COP 23 operate and make agreements. Prior knowledge of international environmental policy or international affairs is not required.

The goal of the course is for students to understand the physics underlying the world we have built for ourselves.
Students will learn how to use basic physics knowledge to address societal-level questions.

Quantitative skills Energy and Power Atoms and Heat Nuclei and Radioactivity Climate change


The final grade will be a weighted average of
  • homework (20%)
  • midterm (30%)
  • end-of-term exam + quizzes (50%)
Contribution from Quizzes:
If you do better on the end-of-term exam than on the quizzes, we ignore the quizzes, and use your end-of-term exam grade as 50% of your course grade. If you do better on the quizzes than on the end-of-term exam, we use 40% end-of-term exam plus 10% quizzes.
So the quizzes can't lower your grade, but they can help compensate for a weak performance on the end-of-term exam.
Your two weakest quiz grades will be dropped, to allow for occasional absences or misunderstandings.
A grade of C- or above counts as a "Pass".
Depiction of weightings
Credit for meeting assistant or professor: Up to Mon Sept 18th, students get a one-time credit of 5 points on their homework for meeting the professor or assistant outside class. This includes attending a help session or office hour.



There will be regular in-class quizzes. Your two lowest quiz grades will be dropped, and then if you do better on the remaining quizzes than on the end-of-term exam then the quizzes will contribute 10% of your grade, as described above.


Midterm: Tues Oct 10th, 2017, 1pm onwards (no time limit) in Crow 204 (our regular classroom)
End-of-term exam: Thurs Dec 7th, 2017, 1pm onwards (no time limit) in Crow 204 (our regular classroom)
Exam rules: These rules apply to quizzes, the midterm and the end-of-term exam.
  1. Each student may compile a single letter-size hand-written "crib sheet" of facts and formulas. Both sides of the sheet may be used, but the sheet must be an original hand-written document, not a copy.
  2. For the exam you are expected to know (or write on the crib sheet) important general numbers that you might need to answer a real-world question, such as the rough cost of domestic electrical power, the power in sunlight, the output of a large power station, etc. You do not need to record detailed numbers from tables in the book, such as the energy density of gasoline or the atomic number of Carbon. Those will be provided if needed.
  3. Each student is expected to bring a calculator to the exam. Calculators that can graph or do algebra are permitted. Calculators (e.g. cell phones) that can connect to the internet or other external sources of information are not permitted.
  4. When answering a question (other than multiple choice), you will usually only get partial credit if you just write down an answer, with no justification. To get full credit you need to give reasons why your answer is correct.

Multiple choice questions

Multiple-choice questions usually have one correct answer, but sometimes they may have no correct answer, or more than one. If your answer is exactly correct, you get 2 points. Otherwise, the only ways to get partial credit are:
  1. If the correct answer is "none", there is no partial credit.
  2. If there is one correct answer, there is no partial credit.
  3. If there are two correct answers, you get 1 point if you only offered one answer and it was correct.
  4. If there are three correct answers, you get 1 point if you offered two answers and they were both correct.
  5. If there are four correct answers, you get 1 point if you offered three answers and they were all correct.