Physics for Poets (I)

Elementary Physics for Non-Technical Students (I)

Welcome to the Elementary Physics (I) course, PHY 309 K. This syllabus describes the class taught in Spring 2014 by Professor Vadim Kaplunovsky (unique #58900). 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, Optics, and Modern Physics (atoms, nuclei, relativity, etc.). The two courses are often taught by different professors. However, in 2014 I am teaching the 309 K class in the Spring, and I will also teach the 309 L class in the Fall.


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

However, math is essential for following any Physics class, and even the Elementary Physics class requires working knowledge of basic high-school algebra. If your algebra is rusty — or if you have never learned it well to begin with — please get it into a working shape before taking my class.

General Information

Physics Coaching Tables:
If you need serious help with Physics, here is the list of Physics tutors.


The textbook for my class is «The Physics of Everyday Phenomena: A Conceptual Introduction to Physics» by W. Thomas Griffith and Juliet W. Brosing (7th edition).

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 first half of the textbook, chapters 1 through 11. (Chapters 12 through 21 will be covered in Elementary Physics II.) 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 2.48. 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 materials: pages copied from books, my notes, notes written by other people, pictures, web applets, etc. Whenever I use some supplementary material that exists in electronic form, I shall post a link here:

Recommended Films and Videos

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 many 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. In fact, you will not get much credit for a numerical answer without a clear explanation of where it came from, even if the number happens to be correct. On the other hand, if you understand the physics governing a problem, use correct formulae, and properly put them together, you would get a high partial credit even if your arithmetic is faulty.

The assignments will be posted on the homework page ( The solutions will be posted on the same page after the due date. Some homework problems will be taken from the textbook, but many will be of my own making.

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 1/14 and due 1/21. Altogether, there will be 13 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 miss one or two homeworks, 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 65 minutes.
The final exam will be in a different room (TBA) 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:

Class attendance increases your score in a non-linear fashion, so it helps poor students more than the better students. For example, a perfect attendance will add 2% to a 90% score but 10% to a 50% score.

Update: Since the first midterm test was much easier than the other midterms, the students who missed the first midterm because of a documented illness or emergency get extra 10 percentage points to the scores of the other wto midterms.


For the curious, here are detailed formulae for caclulating the grades:

  1. The input data for each student are the raw homework scores r_hw_1,…,r_hw_13, 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_13, 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 22 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 letter grades are based on the adjusted scores adj_score according to the following brackets:
A+97 to 100
A92 to 97
A−86 to 92
B+79 to 86
B72 to 79
B−70 to 72
C+62 to 70
C55 to 62
D35 to 55
F0 to 35

The grade point average for the class was 3.12.

PS: The registrar records the A+ grades as A. Also, for students who are registered on pass/fail basis, all ABCD grades are recorded as CR (pass).

Last Update: May 10, 2014.
Vadim Kaplunovsky