FYS 100U




First year seminar 100 U, spring 2013

11:00 – 11:50 MWF in Olin 102 

Professor Richard Williams

Department of Physics

Office:  Olin 212



Office hours:  any time, after first arranging by email or phone.   “Open door policy” – If the door is open and I don’t have another visitor, come in.


FYS Paper #2 due Friday, March 8

Describe an “Incredible Voyage” in which you are able to observe individual atoms and electrons while riding around in a natural gas fired turbine electric generating plant and then out through the wires to a customer who operates a light bulb (sufficient) or a more exotic appliance if you like.  Use your observational skills and informed, rational understanding of how “stuff” works at the level of atoms and electrons, to give the reader a good understanding of how it all (or most of it) works.  Approaches can be diverse.  Good papers could result from a quantitative, scientific approach (if done with mostly correct facts and logic) and as well from a descriptive but logically grounded narrative approach (if done with mostly correct facts and logic).  Interesting is better than not interesting, as long as it is logical.  Building a progressive story of causes and effects is much better than relaying a string of unexamined factoids from Wikipedia etc.  Good grammar, punctuation, and construction are always in demand. 



FYS 100U   --   Reading assignments in Wolfson “Energy, Environment, and Climate”  from Feb. 9 through March 8 (spring break)

Read for discussion on:                                              Chapter

Mon, Feb. 11                                                               1

Wed, 13                                                                       2

Fri,  15                                                                         3

Mon, 18                                                                       3

Wed,  20                                                                      4

Fri,  22                                                                         4

Mon, 25                                                                       5

Wed,  27                                                                      5

Fri,   March 1                                                              6

Mon, March 4                                                             7

Wed,  6                                                                       7

Fri,  8                                                                          7

Spring Break (March 9-17)



We, the planet we live on, and the various objects we construct for comfort, enjoyment, and conflict are materials constructed from no more than 94 different kinds of atoms arranged in various ways.  There are mostly logical rules for that, and the more familiar you are with the natural rules, the better will be your ability to make informed decisions that involve stuff at both individual and societal levels.  The main readings will be from a futurist (Mulhall) who is enthusiastic about the prospects of technology and especially nanotechnology, a physicist (Wolfson) who is concerned about sources and consequences of the energy used by all of humanity, and a social anthropologist (Diamond) who looks back at what material mastery, or lack thereof, did for and to past civilizations.  Interwoven throughout our discussions and some supplementary reading, you will build a familiarity with what controls material behavior from the atomic level up.  Quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and Newton’s laws are your friends in this world. 


Goals:  To think logically and critically about choices concerning technology and natural resources that will affect you, the society you live in, and the world you live on.  To become better able to explain your ideas in effective writing and discussion. 


Required Texts:

Our Molecular Future:  How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics, and Artificial Intelligence Will Transform our World     by Douglas Mulhall

Prometheus Books (2002) ISBN 1-57392-992-1     (hardcover)

Energy, Environment, and Climate      by Richard Wolfson, W. W. Norton publisher  (2008) ISBN 978-0-393-92763-4   (paperback)

Guns, Germs, and Steel      by Jared Diamond W. W. Norton publisher  (1999) ISBN 0-393-31755-2  (paperback)



There will be 4 papers assigned during the semester.  The length of each should be between 3 and 4 pages single spaced.  Topic #1 is stated below and the paper will be due Friday, Feb. 8.  You can start whenever you like.  The other due dates are March 8 and tentatively April 3 and April 29. 


Paper #1 topic:

Select one device or technology that excites both you and Douglas Mulhall.  Since he provides few details of how they work, do some research and explain, as clearly as you can, the one that you picked.  Use at least 3 different kinds of literature resources.  Grading will reward logic, depth of literature research, critical examination of facts and concepts, clear discussion, correct grammar, and good style.   (State the science courses you have taken from high school through the present.  Good or excellent papers can involve various levels of technical or scientific detail and may have their strength in other directions.)



  • Class attendance and participation in discussions –   15%
  • 4 papers –                                                                    60%
  • Oral presentation(s) to class –                                    10%
  • (~ 2) quizzes –                                                            15%
  • no final exam 

Reading schedule from Mulhall:  Read before the indicated date

Friday, Jan. 18                       

Monday, Jan. 21         MLK, Jr. holiday

Wed., Jan. 23              21-51

Fri., Jan. 25                 52-80 

Mon., Jan. 28              81-123  

Wed., Jan. 30              123-173  

Fri., Feb. 1                  174-216  

Mon., Feb. 4                217-254

Wed., Feb. 6               255-292

Fri., Feb. 8                  first paper due.


One student will volunteer or be chosen one class in advance to start discussion on the next reading.  Try to engage the class with something interesting, provocative, or puzzling.  Everyone will do this at least twice. 


At least once during the semester, you will make an oral presentation to the class on a topic meant to improve everyone’s understanding of current reading and discussion.