PHYS 333 (3 cr): Energy and Climate


Course Overview

In PHYS 333 we will build upon what you have already learned in high school and first-year science to explore the fundamental science behind the global issues of energy use and climate change. You will learn how to look at the world around you and evaluate human activities in terms of energy and waste. As we examine the use of energy in our daily lives, we will focus on numbers, not adjectives, and inform the choices we make, as individuals and as society, with concrete data.

By the end of this course, you will be able to:

  • evaluate, numerically, the energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions of a wide variety of activities of individuals and of human society as a whole.
  • engage in the global energy and climate debate using numbers rather than adjectives.
  • make measurements on everyday activities and relate the results to energy use and climate impact.
  • develop a heightened sense of your responsibility, as science students, to educate those around you and to improve the public debate on these issues.

Intended Students and Prerequisites

PHYS 333 is a course in energy and climate physics for general science students and majors in sciences. The Math prerequisites are basic first-year level differential and integral calculus (one of MATH 101, MATH 103, MATH 105, MATH 121). You will also need a second term of first-year physics (PHYS 102, PHYS 108, PHYS 153). Any SCIE001 student is eligible.

Students who might be interested in this course include: (a) Upper-level UBC non-physics science students. (b) Upper-level physics students anticipating difficulty with PHYS 203. Non-essential groups: (c) Any other citizen aiming for energy and climate-literacy.

Course Topics

There are 5 modules that will be covered. The first 4 are each expected to take three weeks, the last module will take a single week.

Module 1 – Current World Situation

In this module, we will explore current situations in terms of climatology and human energy needs. You will estimate an individual’s impact on the earth’s atmosphere, explore how thermal radiation is emitted and absorbed by various objects and develop a simple quantitative model of the earth’s atmosphere to help further our understanding of climate change.

Module 2 – Heating

To live, we need to maintain a core body temperature of 37C. The mean air temperature in Vancouver is 12C. Plainly, we need to expend energy to maintain this essential temperature difference. This means food for our bodies and heating for our homes and workplaces. This module will determine how much energy we need and how to minimize its environmental impact.

Module 3 – Energy Generation and Transmission

This module examines where we get our energy from and how we transmit it from where it is produced to where it is used. We grapple with the impact of fossil fuels, the expense and unreliability of many renewable sources, and the promise and dangers of nuclear power.

Module 4 – Transportation

At least a quarter of our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation: getting ourselves and our stuff from A to B. What are the fundamental limits on “transport cost”: the energy required to move a certain mass a given distance? Can this energy come from renewable sources? Can aviation ever be truly “green”? Why do some scientists claim cycling is environmentally worse than driving?

Module 5 – Summation

Many students’ response to our energy and climate problem is “OK, but what can I do?”. This module examines what we can all do, particularly in terms of your capacity as science-literate citizens to inject some good science into public discussion and policy-making.


Students will be evaluated based on a number of activities including problem sets, online discussions, take home experiments and a final exam. Grading for the course will broken down as follows:

  • Module Problem Sets: 20%
  • Take Home Experiments: 30%
  • Discussion Participation: 10%
  • Final Exam: 40%

Module Problem Sets/Inline questions

Each learning module will have three to four questions that range from quick multiple choice questions to a couple of more in-depth problems. There will be approximately 6 to 9 questions per week. Students submit the answers to these problems independently as they work through the learning modules, but will be encouraged to use the Q&A discussion forum to ask questions when they need help.

Take Home Experiments

There will be four take-home experiments in the course, one for each of the first four modules. The take-home experiment will be introduced at the beginning of each module and students will have three weeks to complete each one before submitting them at the end of the module. Through the take-home experiments, students will apply the concepts and problem solving skills learned through the lessons.


There will be two kinds of forums: a Q&A forum designated for asking about the technical content of the course and Big Picture forums where students will engage in group problem solving activities. Students will be expected to post questions on the technical content of the course in the Q&A forums as well as respond to questions posted by other students. The goal of this is to promote a peer learning environment, as well as allowing students to contribute to the forums in a way that suits their abilities. For the Big Picture discussions students will work in groups to participate in problem solving exercises focused real world problems related to climate and energy. The goal is to learn how to participate in dialogue using scientific reasoning, moving from qualitative to quantitative explanations as we start to understand how to evaluate these ideas using numbers, not adjectives.

Final Examination

The final examination will cover:

  • The basic energy and climate physics concepts learned in the course
  • Calculational techniques used to give numerical estimates
  • Techniques for measurement used in the take-home experiments
  • Policy questions raised by the science

The examination will be written at UBC Vancouver and possibly other designated sites.

Course Materials

Source Texts

An excellent source for this course is “Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay. It is available free online at In addition, there will also materials be used from the C21 – Physics Teaching for the 21st Century web site.

Experimental Equipment

The textbook for this course is freely available online. We will however require you to have, or to have access to, the following equipment for the take-home experiments:

  • A rain gauge
  • An anemometer
  • An infrared thermometer
  • A regular cooking thermometer
  • A timer of some sort
  • A digital voltmeter
  • A bathroom scale, or some way to measure a large mass (10s of kg)
  • A pan balance, or some way to measure a small mass (< 1 kg)
  • A bicycle tachometer
  • A kilowatt meter (available for borrowing from the library)

A full set can be bought in stores or online for about $100, but it is unlikely you will have to buy every device because (a) you may already have access to some of them and (b) you will do the experiments in pairs (to be arranged by the course instructor). This said, each device is durable and generally useful to have around.

Specific recommendations for buying will be posted soon. If you own or have access to a device but are unsure whether it will suit the course activities, please check with the instructor.