Physics 1110 -- Energy on this World and Elsewhere

Taught by Professor Gordon Cates

Physics 1110 is a course designed to examine questions related to energy from a physicist's perspective. It is not meant to be a general introductory physics course. Instead, the course is meant to be a vehicle through which students can use the methodologies of physics to address a number of interesting energy-related questions.

Physicists are known for analyzing problems in particularly quantitative terms. Such an approach gives rise to an interesting and often useful view of the world around us. While it is sometimes difficult to know precisely what one should use as the correct starting assumptions, the conclusions reached can nevertheless have a definiteness that is refreshing in a world filled with ambiguity.

We will begin by reviewing the concept of energy, discussing the different forms it can take, and paying attention to when it can and cannot be used to do useful work. Having developed a common language, we will explore the sources of energy that we use in society. We will try to understand a bit of the physics involved in each case, but always with an eye toward the practical goal of better understanding the possibilities and limitations that we face as a society.

We will use a variety of source materials during the course including the book "The Character of Physical Law" by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman (from lectures he gave for a general audience), "Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century", also by a Nobel laureate, Burton Richter, various government reports and articles from various journals, and even the fiction of Isaac Asimov. In addition, an extensive set of class notes written by the professor will provide a unifying framework so that everyone will have a clear understanding of the central points being discussed.

If you want to use high-powered calculus, look elsewhere. The math that we will employ is better described as high-powered arithmetic, with a little algebra thrown in. We will, however, explore the ways in which quantitative analysis can shed light on a variety of problems related in one way or another to energy. By the end of the semester, you will be able to answer for yourself such questions as whether we can get all the energy we need from wind, and whether or not nuclear power is capable of solving our energy needs. Perhaps most importantly, the style of analysis we will use is of general value and is not at all limited to physics. There are no prerequisites for this course, although some familiarity with physics at the high school level is desirable.

Questions can be directed to Prof. Cates at cates@virginia.edu