Valid XHTML 1.0!

Physics 173, Physics of Sustainable Energy, Fall 2024


The course meets (probably?) on Tuesday and Thursday at 1pm - 2:20pm in Crow 204.

In-person attendence is not required but is strongly encouraged, since the material presented in lectures defines the course (there is no required textbook) and we use regular in-class exercises to reinforce learning. See the Grading section for information on in-class quizzes.


Instructor: Prof. Mark Alford
Office: Compton 358; 
Office hour: Monday, 4pm-5pm (Zoom links are on the course's Canvas page). Students are encouraged to ask questions via Piazza (see below) or to make appointments to see Prof. Alford in person or via zoom.
Assistant: To be decided.


Please enroll in the class Piazza forum.


In this course, we will be using iClicker for in-class quizzes and exercises. Please follow the instructions on how to participate via iClicker.

In summary:

Student support resources

Information on student resources, health and safety protocols, etc is available at the Provost's Syllabus Resources Page.
Big questions:
What we will cover:

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

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


Homework: Current All assigned so far

Instructions for writing a short report


All in-class quizzes


Midterm exam

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
Youtube video link Are electric cars more eco-friendly?
Youtube video link Heat and Temperature
Youtube video link How do solar panels work?
Youtube video link The importance of Energy Storage

Additional Videos

These videos are interesting additional material, most of which is part of the course, but some of which goes beyond what would be tested in quizzes or exams.

Youtube video link Hydrogen versus Battery for electric vehicles
Youtube video link Thermal equilibration: using heat to steal a PIN code using an iPhone
Youtube video link How electricity is generated
Youtube video link Explanation of air conditioner (i.e. heat pump)
Youtube video link One form of Geoengineering: atmospheric aerosols
Youtube video link Fracking explained
Youtube video link A problem for solar power: the "duck curve"
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

Optional extra material:

How to do well in this course

How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, an article on the importance of fluency, by Barbara Oakley

Useful reading

The book Physics and Technology for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller, ISBN 978-0-691-13504-5, covers many of our course topics.

Extra practice problems

Energy in our lives

Climate change

Greenhouse gas reduction

Nuclear energy


Grades will be determined by a combination of homework, a midterm exam, in-class quizzes, and the final exam. The final grade will be a weighted average of
  • homework (25%)
  • midterm exam (35%)
  • final exam + quizzes (40%)
Contribution from Quizzes:
If you do better on the final exam than on the quizzes, we ignore the quizzes, and use your final exam grade as 40% of your course grade. If you do better on the quizzes than on the final exam, we use 30% final exam plus 10% quizzes.
So the quizzes can't lower your grade, but they can help compensate for a weak performance in the final exam.
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


Rules for Quizzes and Exams

These rules apply to quizzes and the midterm and final exams.

  1. Each student may bring and consult a single letter-size "crib sheet" of facts and formulas. Both sides of the sheet may be used, but everything on the sheet must be written or generated by the student themselves. It should not contain copies of documents generated by other people.
  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 or lecture slides, 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.