Physics 111 NA

Energy Options, and Science Policy Jerry Gollub

Examination of the process by which scientists influence policy, seen through the lens of energy issues. The course considers the science behind various sustainable energy options, including solar heat and electricity, wind and tidal power, and efficient methods of heating and refrigeration. It also examines the efforts of the National Academies to provide objective policy advice on the complex decisions involving energy alternatives.


1. Learn the science underlying energy and climate issues.
2. Become a knowledgeable evaluator of complex energy options.
3. Understand the processes by which scientists seek to influence government decisions or policies, especially those related to energy and climate.


Students are expected to do some quantitative assignments, and to utilize the physical principles discussed in the course, which will sometimes be expressed in mathematical form. A college level mathematics course, is recommended. Willingness to engage in quantitative reasoning is required.

For example, students will estimate quantitatively the reduction in hydrocarbon consumption that could be achieved by converting building heating to heat pumps.  Another example:  estimate the energy required for a plane to fly (per mile) based on fundamental physical principles, and compare the estimate to the actual performance of modern aircraft.

Students who should consider taking this course:

Students interested in energy issues, the scientific basis for moving toward sustainable options, and the process by which scientists seek to influence policy. The course meets the NA requirement.


This course is an elective among the "Science of the Environment" courses in the BMC Environmental Studies Concentration. 

We will have as a guest speaker Dr. Peter Blair, who directed the National Academies’ recent energy studies. Professor Harvey Glickman will participate when we discuss the science advisory process. I hope to have a guest economics professor to assist us in discussing the reduction of carbon emissions.  However, this course will not deal with economic questions in depth.

Course Limit: 35

(28 students to be assigned randomly; 7 additional places to be reserved for seniors)

Further Information

The course will address questions such as these. How can we move confidently toward a future that is more sustainable than the current heavy reliance on fossil fuels? How can we cope with the many uncertainties of complex policy alternatives? How effective are scientists' efforts to influence policy? What mechanisms for offering policy advice can best assure reasonable objectivity? We will examine some of the scientific and technical issues involved in various energy options, in order to understand how they work in terms of basic physics, and what their fundamental and practical limitations are. This includes passive solar heating, direct conversion from light to electricity, wind and tidal power, and alternatives for improving energy efficiency in lighting, heating, and refrigeration. Students will be asked to look at energy issues quantitatively, in conjunction with sources provided. They will gain competence in relating energy options to physical principles, and in making quantitative estimates. We will also evaluate scientists' efforts to provide objective advice to government, often through reports published by the National Academies, created originally by Abraham Lincoln for the purpose of providing science-based advice.

Major Readings (plus some notes to be provided):

Course Requirements

I ask for serious engagement by all participants. This means: coming to class reliably, doing the assigned readings and homework in a timely manner, and participating in class discussions and occasional laboratories to the extent that the size of the class allows.

  1. Regular class attendance. Students are expected not to miss more than two classes for any reason (including athletic events, oversleeping, etc.), other than illness.  If you can’t attend class, please send an e-mail message in advance to jgollub.
  2. Reading the assigned material by the dates specified. Some class notes may be posted on Blackboard after the topic has been completed.
  3. About 6-8 written assignments.
  4. A midterm exam. Review questions will be provided.
  5. A paper or project addressing a timely scientific policy issue in depth, both from the scientific and policy points of view.


Grades are based on mastery of the general objectives stated in this syllabus, and specific objectives to be provided later.  The average course grade is typically around 3.2 in a course of this type.  The following weights will apply to the various components of your work:

Weekly assignments 25%
Midterm Exam 25%
Paper or Project 50%

Homework assignments are expected on time, except in case of illness. You may also give yourself one no-penalty extension for up to a week in case you are swamped with work due simultaneously in different courses. Just turn in a note in place of the assignment indicating that you wish to take a "free extension". Otherwise, the late penalty is 15% of the earned grade if one class late, and 25% for up to 1 week late.

Rough Outline



Wolfson Ch. 1-3
MacKay Ch. 2-3


Energy and Heat

Wolfson Ch. 4


Fossil Fuels

Wolfson Ch. 5,6
AEF Ch. 7


Nuclear and Geothermal

Wolfson Ch. 7,8
MacKay Ch. 16,24
AEF Ch. 8


Solar Energy (Passive and Photovoltaic)

Wolfson Ch. 9
MacKay Ch. 6, Appendix D


Indirect Solar (Hydro, Wind, Biomass)

Wolfson Ch. 10
MacKay Ch. 4,8,10,12,14,
MacKay Appendix B,F,G


Science Policy; Glickman Visit



Hydrogen, Climate Basics

Wolfson Ch. 11,12


Climate Assessment, Futures

Wolfson Ch. 13-16


Blair Visit and NRC Studies

Blair papers on Science Policy


Conservation Issues-Transportation

Meier Readings, MacKay Ch. 20
AEF Ch.4


Conservation - Buildings

Meier Readings, MacKay Ch. 21
AEF Ch.4


Fluctuations and Storage

MacKay Ch. 26
AEF Ch. 9


Concluding Discussions; What is Known
And Unknown; Student Presentations

AEF Ch. 2
MacKay Ch. 29-31