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Physics 171, Physics and Society, Fall 2020


The course meets on Tuesday and Thursday at 1pm - 2:15pm in Crow 204.
Lectures will also be available for remote students via zoom, both as live meetings and recordings. Zoom links are on the course's Canvas page.

The classroom can only accommodate 15 students at a time. There are currently about 20 registered students, some of whom will participate remotely. We therefore expect that all students who want to attend in person will be able to do so. If necessary we will develop a schedule to allow as many students as possible to attend in-person class.


Instructor: Prof. Mark Alford
Office: Compton 358; 
Office hour: Monday, 9:30-10:30am (Zoom links are on the course's Canvas page).
Students are also welcome to make appointments to see Prof. Alford at other times.
Assistant: Billy An
Help session: Monday 4-5pm (Zoom links are on the course's Canvas page)
Class email:

Poll Everywhere

In this course, we will be using Poll Everywhere for in-class quizzes.

To participate in a Poll Everywhere quiz, use a web browser and navigate to
Make sure you log in (the "Log in" button is at the right hand end of the bar at the top of the page) before answering any poll questions. This will ensure that you are recognized and get proper credit for your answers.


Physics and Technology for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller, ISBN 978-0-691-13504-5
It is very helpful to have a copy of this book: the course is based on selected chapters from it, and there is assigned reading from the book.
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

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

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


Homework: Current All assigned so far

Instructions for writing a short report


All in-class quizzes

Course videos

These videos are part of the course, and students may be tested on their content.

Youtube video link Unit conversions 1: basic technique
Youtube video link Unit conversions 2: multiple units

Additional Videos

These videos are interesting additional material, some of which goes beyond what would be tested in quizzes or exams.

Youtube video link Thermal equilibration: using heat to steal a PIN code using an iPhone
link to video Animation of a 4-stroke internal combustion engine
Youtube video link Animation of nuclear fission chain reaction (just ignore the mispronunciation of "nucleus"!)
Youtube video link Short video describing nuclear fission
Youtube video link A quick history and overview of nuclear power (with links to two more videos, pro and con)
Youtube video link A quick explanation of nuclear fusion power
Youtube video link Fracking explained
Youtube video link A problem for solar power: the "duck curve"

Optional extra material:

How to do well in this course

Extra practice problems

Energy in our lives

Nuclear energy

Climate change

Alternate Energy


Grades will be determined by a combination of homework, in-class quizzes, and a final project.
The final grade will be a weighted average of
  • homework (40%)
  • final project + quizzes (60%)
Contribution from Quizzes:
If you do better on the final project than on the quizzes, we ignore the quizzes, and use your final project grade as 60% of your course grade. If you do better on the quizzes than on the final project, we use 50% final project plus 10% quizzes.
So the quizzes can't lower your grade, but they can help compensate for a weak performance in the final project.
Your two lowest 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


In-class Quizzes

Final Project

The final project is a written report on one of the topics covered in the course. You can choose the topic, but it must be approved by the professor. The report should be about 1000 words long. Your report should include
  1. An abstract of about 50 words summarizing your topic and findings.
  2. An introduction to the topic, giving an overview of the context. This might includes things like the societal goals that needs to be achieved, why they are important, the scientific challenges in meeting those goals, and the range of solutions that are currently deployed or planned.
  3. A discussion of the main topic, including references to and analysis of your sources (newspaper articles, government or industry publications, articles in academic journals or reputable popular magazines, etc).
  4. Some quantitative analysis relevant to the topic. This could include displaying graphs of data and discussing their meaning, making estimates and calculations to check claims made in your sources, etc.
  5. Your own well-reasoned and well-justified commentary on the sources, leading to your own conclusions about the topic.