Summer 2009

SCIE 646
Energy, Sustainability, and the Future of Society

Stewart,Brian A.

06/22/2009 - 07/31/2009
Note: Special Schedule 09:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Science Tower 221

This course is an attempt to understand the physical underpinnings of industrial society with the ultimate goal of answering the question "What is sustainability?".

We will approach the subject by:

o examining the material and energetic inputs to civilization;

o determining the constraints physical law places on our use of these resources;

o exploring the various alternative energy sources that have been proposed, in the hope of discovering what role each might play in a sustainable society.

Along the way, we will measure and attempt to understand critically our own use of energy, so that we may move our own consumption patterns in a more sustainable direction. The course direction will be fine-tuned based on the interests of the participants.

Sources to be studied include:
David MacKay's new "Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air". This remarkable book details the characteristics of the various energy sources available to us and makes recommendations about the role each might play in a sustainable society. It is available online for free at

Lester Brown's "Plan B: 3.0". The complex and interwoven nature of the pickle we are in is made clear in this book, which also offers a coherent plan for moving civilization in a sustainable direction.

Richard Heinberg's "Peak Everything", a consideration of humankind's depletion of natural resources and a meditation on what might be sustainable.

Numerous articles from the research literature and the popular press.

Students will be graded on class participation, problem sets, a term paper, and a shorter paper aimed at influencing the press or an elected official. No particular knowledge of physics is assumed, and no math beyond algebra is used; there will be plenty of numbers, however, and students will be encouraged to make judgments based on quantitative information. Basic physical principles will be introduced in order to ground our studies and make them concrete.

Course tuition: $2022

SPECIAL SCHEDULE: This course will meet on the following days:

Week 1: Tuesday, June 30; Thursday, July 2

Week 2: Thursday, July 16; Friday, July 17

Week 3: Tuesday, July 21; Thursday, July 23; Friday, July 24

Week 4: Tuesday, July 28, Thursday, July 30; Friday, July 31

A syllabus for this course is available at:
SCIE 646

Brian Stewart (B.S., Stanford; Ph.D., MIT) is associate professor of physics. Click here for more information about Brian Stewart.


Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:

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