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In PH315 (The Physics of Contemporary Challenges) we consider major societal challenges (energy generation, energy conservation,climate modeling, space exploration…) as the motivation and framework for learning introductory quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermal physics and physical reasoning skills.

Students will learn the physics governing the efficiency limits of

  • solar photovoltaics
  • lighting systems
  • heating and cooling systems
  • car and airplane travel

And how the energy transfer between the sun, earth and space relates to the earth's climate, by learning the physics of

  • light-matter interactions with greenhouse gases
  • heat capacity of the atmosphere and oceans
  • thermal equilibrium of the planet

Students will develop familiarity with calculus skills

  • integration/differentiation operations on real-world data
  • the use of differential equations to describe physical systems.

Learning outcomes

Students will be able to

  • Identify and apply physical laws that place practical and fundamental limits on physical processes
  • Estimate the order of magnitude of physical phenomena
  • Describe the role of physical reasoning in solving contemporary societal challenges
  • Use experimental data to calculate single-variable derivatives and integrals
  • Interpret multi-variable symbolic equations, differential equations, and graphs to describe linear and non-linear functional relationships in physical systems
  • Use dimensional reasoning to make sense of graphs and equations


PH211, PH212 and PH213.

1st Fall1st Winter1st Spring2nd Fall2nd Winter2nd Spring3rd Fall
most physics major PH211PH212PH213 PH315 & PH335
some physics majors PH211PH212PH213PH315 & PH335

Key information

  • Instructor: (Winter 2016) Prof. Ethan Minot, Office: Weniger 417
  • TA: (Winter 2016) Dr. Paul Emigh
  • Textbook: See below
  • Class Meetings: MWF 12.00 - 12.50pm, Weniger 212

Course Evaluation

Exam and midterm topics may be discussed in lectures, assigned for homework, or for reading. Each student is responsible for compiling their own equation sheet (“cheat sheet”) for the midterm and final. The cheat sheet is one side of an 8.5 x 11 inch page.


The reading list for this class includes chapters from these books:

“Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay (free pdf download, option 1, free pdf download option 2)

“Six Ideas That Shaped Physics Unit Q” 3rd Edition by Thomas Moore. You can rent this book from Amazon for $16.48. The book is also available on reserve at the Valley Library.

“Six Ideas That Shaped Physics Unit T” 3rd Edition by Thomas Moore. You can rent this book from Amazon for $24.08. The book is also available on reserve at the Valley Library.

Recommended reading:

  • “Physics for Future Presidents” by Richard Muller
  • “Global warming: Understanding the Forecast” by David Archer
  • “Feynman Lectures in Physics, Volume 1” see 41-1, 41-2 and 41-3.
  • “Megawatts and Megatons” by Garwin and Charpak

Additional resources:

  • The Princeton Primers in Climate Series, especially the book in that series on “Planetary Climates” by Andy Ingersoll.


Weekly homework will be assigned. Problems will include text-book type problems, and also reading assignments. Check the main page for assignments and due dates.

There is a 10% penalty if you miss the deadline at 5pm on Friday. There is a 50% penalty if you turn in the homework after the solutions have been posted.

When calculating the final homework score, I will drop the lowest score. This gives you flexibility to miss one homework if you need to.

Pay attention to the presentation of your homework solutions - physical insight and clear explanations are as important as mathematical manipulation. Clarity, logical structure, spelling, grammar, and neatness contribute to the overall assessment. Make your solutions a model that another student could learn from.

Ground Rules

Science is inherently a social and collaborative effort. Scientists discuss, collaborate and build on each others ideas. Such systems are sometime abused, therefore, there are ground rules to ensure that everyone is given fair credit for their efforts.

  • We encourage students to work with classmates, other students, and the faculty. However, you are expected to do this in a professional and responsible fashion. Each student is expected to turn in assignments that have been independently synthesized and written. This applies also to computer assignments. Ask questions and discuss, but never simply copy answer without providing your own synthesis and interpretation. If you have discussed a problem with a classmate, add the phrase “I thank _ __ for helpful discussions about this problem”. When helping your peers, do so by discussing and explaining, not simply providing an answer to be copied.
  • Homework solutions from previous years are very strictly off-limits. You are on your honor not to use them, and never to share your homework solutions with other students, now or in the future. Likewise, the solutions are for your personal use only. You may keep one copy in your personal files.
  • Sources must be appropriately documented. If you follow a line of reasoning from another text, reference it properly (it will help you locate the resource later, too). If someone else helps you solve a problem, reference that too.
  • Plagiarism - representing someone else's work as your own - is unethical, but collaboration and exchange of ideas is healthy. If you are collaborating, then avoid any appearance of plagiarism by acknowledging sources and by writing up your work independently.
  • OSU has a webpage devoted to the topic of student conduct. You should familiarize yourself with this code of conduct.


A free download of Mathematica is available for OSU students: OSU Software services

Incomplete grades

Course Outcomes

Students with special needs

Students with documented disabilities who may need accommodation, who have any medical information which the instructor should know of, or who need special arrangements in the event of evacuation, should make an appointment to discuss their needs with the instructor as early as possible, and no later than the first week of the term.

Accommodations are collaborative efforts between students, faculty and Disability Access Services (DAS). Students with accommodations approved through DAS are responsible for contacting the faculty member in charge of the course prior to or during the first week of the term to discuss accommodations. Students who believe they are eligible for accommodations but who have not yet obtained approval through DAS should contact DAS immediately at 541-737-4098.

link for instructors

wiki/course_info.txt · Last modified: 2019/10/12 08:52 by ethanminot