Physics for Poets (II)

Elementary Physics for Non-Technical Students (II)

Welcome to the Elementary Physics (II) course, PHY 309 L. This syllabus describes the class taught in Fall 2010 by Professor Vadim Kaplunovsky (unique #56970). Other professors teaching this course would have their own syllabi.

NOTE: This web page will be updated during the semester! Please check it weekly.

Elementary Physics is a non-technical course intended for liberal-arts and other non-science majors, hence the nickname «Physics for Poets»; it's more about Physics than Physics itself. Nevertheless, the language of Physics is Mathematics, and I will use a lot of formulae. You do not need calculus or higher math to follow this class, but basic algebra is essential.

For administrative reasons, the Elementary Physics is split into two courses, but if you are intesrested in Physics, you should take both. The first course (PHY 309 K) focuses on Mechanics and Thermodynamics, while the second course (PHY 309 L) covers Electricity, Magnetism, Waves and Optics, and Modern Physics (atoms, nuclei, relativity, etc.). The two courses are usually taught by different professors: This Fall, I am teaching PHY 309 L, even though I have not taught the 309 K class since 2006.


Before taking the Elementary Physics (II) course, you must complete Elementary Physics (I) or a more techical physics class covering the same subject, for example 302 K, 303 K, 317 K, or 301 K. If you took a physics class in another university, please take you transcripts to Pat Morgan (Physics undergraduate secretary, her office is in RLM 5.216), she will tell you if that class satisfies the prerequisite or not.

There are no other prerequisites. Also, unlike the more technical physics courses, the Elementary Physics class does not require a lab.

General Information

Physics Coaching Tables:


The textbook for my class is «The Physics of Everyday Phenomena: A Conceptual Introduction to Physics» by W. Thomas Griffith and Juliet W. Brosing (6th edition). It's the same book Dr. Matzner have used for his Elementary Physics (I) class this Spring.

Every now and then, I'll bring some supplementary notes to class, or post them on the web. But you do not need to buy any supplementary textbooks, study guides, etc., so save your money. Likewise, you won't need clickers or special classtalk calculators — any scientific calculator will do.

Course Material

In principle, this course should cover everything in the textbook. Or rather everything in chapters 12 through 21, since chapters 1 through 11 should have been covered in the previous course, General Physics (I). But in practice this is too much material for most students to absorb in one 3-unit semester, so I shall focus on the more important subjects and give less coverage to others. And a few minor subjects of lesser importance will be skipped altogether.

When I start a new chapter of the textbook, I'll announce which sections (if any) I am going to skip, and I will and post them here (at the bottom of the lecture page The exams will not involve the skipped material.


The lectures are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 3:30 to 5 PM, in Painter Hall, room PAI 4.42. Attendance is mandatory and may affect your grade.

Disruption of lectures will not be tolerated. Persistent or egregious disruptiveness will lower your grade (if appropriate, all the way to F).

For your convenience, I will keep a log of lectures and their subjects on a separate web page Since the pace of the course may change according to the students' understanding, I will not make a complete schedule at the beginning of the class. Instead, I will simply log every lecture after I give it. This way, if you miss a lecture, you will know what you should read in the textbook and other students' notes.

Supplementary Notes and Illustrations

Some lectures will use supplementary notes or illustrations taken from external web sites. For some other lectures, I might write supplementartes myself. The links to those notes and illustrations will be posted here.

Review Sessions

I will ask the TA to give a review session before each exam. I might also give a session or two myself when too may students have difficulties with a particularly thorny subject. I shall announce each session in class as soon as I schedule it, and I will also post the date, time, and room here:


In my class, I shall not use any computerized homework systems. The homework assignments and the exams will be graded by the TA, who will look at your whole solution rather then just the answer. You will get a partial credit for a partially correct solution, and getting the concepts right will count for more then getting the right number at the end of the calculation.

The assignments will be posted on the homework page ( The solutions will be posted on the same page after the due date. Most homework problems will be taken from the textbook, but I will also add a few of my own.

Homeworks will be assgned weekly, but you will get an extra class day after each mid-term test. The first set will be assigned on the first class day 8/26 and due 9/2. Altogether, there will be twelve homework sets, here is the complete schedule. I shall collect the homeworks in class; please do not bring them to my office or mailbox.

You may do your homework individually or in small teams of two or three students; larger teams are not allowed. A team should submit a single solution signed by all students in the team. If you work in a team, make sure everybody understands the whole solution — otherwise, you will flunk the exams.

To allow for emergencies, you may skip one or two homeworks without hurting your grade, but if you miss three or more, your grade will suffer.


There will be three mid-term tests during the semester, and one final exam at the end. Here is the schedule:

All exams are open-book. You may bring any books or notes you like, provided you can manage them at your seat without disturbing other students. But you must do your exam by yourself: Getting help from another person during the exam is not allowed. For this reason, using cellphones or Internet during the exam is not allowed.

Please bring your ID to all tests, especially to the final exam. To prevent cheating, we (me and the TA) will ID all students. If you don't have a UT ID, bring your driver's license or passport.

Bring a calculator. Most exam problems can be done with pencil-and-paper arithmetic, but sometimes a calculator can speed up the work.

The mid-term tests will be at the regular class time, in the usual classroom, and last one hour (60 minutes).
The final exam will be in a different room UTC 4.102
and last 3 hours (180 minutes).

The subject matter of each mid-term test may include anything studied in class up to the last lecture before the test. It may also involve subjects studied before the previous test, so don't flush your memories after the test is over. And the final exam will cover everything studied in class, from the first lecture to the last.

Only two best mid-term scores will count towards your grade. This allows one missed or botched test (because of illness or emergency) without damage to the grade. But if you miss (or foul up) two or all three tests, your grade will suffer.

If you cannot come to class on a test day, let me know in advance so I can give you an appropriate remedy. If you miss the test without my prior permission, I will consider remedies only in cases of documented illness or emergency.


The grades are based on homeworks, mid-term tests, and the final exam with the following weights:

Here are the formulae I have used to calculate the grades:

  1. The input data for each student are the raw homework scores r_hw_1,…,r_hw_11, the raw mid-term scores r_mt_1, r_mt_2, and r_mt_3, the raw final exam score r_fin, the attendence count att_count, and the count of excused absenses excused.
  2. The raw scores are converted into percentage scores as
           hw_1 = r_hw_1*100/normalization(r_hw_1);
    and likewise for hw_2,…,hw_11, mt_1, mt_2, mt_3, and fin.
  3. The averages and the combined score are calculated according to
  4. The attendance fraction is calculated based on 21 signup sheets and allowing for 2 un-excused absences. Thus
  5. The combined score is adjusted according to attendance as
           adj_score = combined + 0.2*att_frac*max(100-combined, 0);
    Note that this adjustment affects the low scores more than the high scores.

The ABCDF grades follow from the adjusted score adj_score according to the following brackets:

Letter gradeAdjusted score
A+96 or higher
A91 to 96
A−88 to 91
B84 to 88
B−81 to 84
C72 to 81
C−60 to 72

Luckily, there were no D of F grades in this class: The students who were heading for such a grade have Q-dropped.

Note: The UT registrar records A+ grades as ordinary As.

Last Update: December 15, 2010.
Vadim Kaplunovsky