APPH E4901 & E4903 Applied Physics Seminar

Fall 2015 Theme
Innovation and science to advance our national energy and climate goals
(a.k.a. "How can scientific and technical innovations help solve the world's energy-climate crisis?)


General Theme Grading Syllabus GRE Innovation Teams Links


Welcome to the APPH E4901 & E4903 Applied Physics Seminar class information site. MW 11:40 - 12:55 Room 327 S. W. Mudd

APPH E4901x Applied Physics Seminar 1 pt. Discussion of specific and self-contained problems in areas such as applied EM, physics of solids, and plasma physics. Topics change yearly. This course is usually reserved for third-year students majoring in Applied Physics.

APPH E4903x Applied Physics Seminar 2 pt. Involves students in all of the discussions that are part of APPH E4901, but also involves the preparation of a formal term paper or presentation on a research topic of the student's choice. This course is usually reserved for graduating seniors majoring in Applied Physics.

Topics change every year and are designed to introduce students in to current research in applied physics.


This year's theme is innovation and science for energy and climate. We will discuss the science of climate, the technology of energy, and the wide ranging policies discussed to bring about a sustainable future. To understand climate and energy is to understand one of the most important issues of our time.

Planetary exploration has shown how a planet's atmosphere effects climate. Compare Venus and Mars.

Venus is a closes twin of Earth. Both Venus and Earth have nearly equal size and composition is largely the same as Earth's. The orbit of Venus is close to Earth's. Both worlds have relatively young surfaces thick atmospheres with clouds. But the atmosphere of Venus is very dense (very high pressure) and made of carbon dioxide. Because Vensus has an extreme greenhouse effect, the surface of Venu can reach a 870 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius).

Mars is at the opposite extreme from Venus. Mars atmosphere is about 100 times less dense than Earth's (and nearly 9,000 times less dense than Venus). Being further from the Sun and without any greenhouse effect at all, Mars is a cold, about - 80 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Vannevar Bush US Science Funding to 1945

The relationship between climate and greenhouse gases was first explained by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896. Since then, the modern science of climate has developed, and international organizations, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), bring together hundreds of scientists to inform policy makers about the implications of the science of climate and energy.

Climate and energy are "big issues". For example, look at Climate and Energy policies and actions at the White House, the United Nations, and ExxonMobile. Columbia University has the Earth Institute, the Climate Center, the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, the Center on Global Energy Policy, and makes an institutional committment to sustainable energy and climate issues. There are several excellentopportunities for students to engage in important energy and climate research at Columbia University.

The motivation for this year's theme came from my own experiences as an applied physicists, from exposure to national science policy in plasma physics and magnetic fusion energy, and from my year as a Jefferson Science Fellow working in the Office of International Energy Policy (now the Bureau of Energy Resources) in the State Department. (The State Department has a role in science policy for several reasons. For one, science has become international, especially with mega projects like the ITER fusion energy experiment in France, the world's most complicated energy project, and the high-energy particle colliders used to understand the fundamental constituents of matter. Others include: science as diplomacy, the international efforts to keep the world safe from misuse of nuclear weapons technology, and the promoting international trade and development based on global advancements in science and technology. The involvement of Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, former professor of nuclear physics at MIT, in the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a.k.a. the "Iranian nuclear deal", demonstrates an essentual role of the physicist in pressing international issues.)

  • What are the energy and climate issues driving science and technology investments today?
  • What are the physics principles underlying energy options and long term climate science?
  • How should applied physicists contribute to environmental sustainability and economic growth?
  • What are the attractive options for energy innovation and discovery?

These are terrific (and complex) questions, with no single answer.

This semester, our approach will be to (i) introduce some basics, and, then, (ii) select one or two energy and climate topics and analyze the scientific and technical basis needed to arrive at something like a research and development plan, or a science policy recommendation.
Textbooks and References

There are no required textbooks in this course. I will provide links to PDF documents in the class schedule detailed below.

But, there are two very good books (available as Kindle ebooks) that I used in preparing for this course:


Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century

by Burton Richter, who was co-recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Physics.

His first edition was published in 2006, and last year Richter published an updated version. Richter explains, "The public needs and deserves an honest science-based explanation of what we know, how we know it, what the uncertainties are, how long it will take to reduce those uncertainties, and what we can do to reduce the risk of long-term changes to the world climate that make the Earth less hospitable to society."

Energy: A beginner's guide

by Vaclav Smil, the forthright energy science and policy expert from the University of Manitoba.

Smil's book was published in 2006, and ends with a hopeful prediction for scientfic innovation, "The task ahead is daunting, because the expectations for energy futures are high. ... While our past record of ingenuity, invention, and innovation is no guarantee that another fairly smooth epochal energy transition will take place during the next few generations – it is a good foundation for betting that our chances are far better than even."


GRE Practice

This year the GRE Subject Test in Physics can be taken on Saturday, October 24. Registration is Friday, September 18. A very good score on your GRE Physics Exam will significantly improve your graduate school admission options.

We'll practice GRE Physics problems on [Date to be determined], 11:45 to 12:25, beginning in September. We'll discuss those high-leverage questions that have a relatively low percentage of correct answers.

Some past year exams include:


This is a lunch-time seminar, and grading is based on participation.

For those taking E4903x, your grade will also be determined by your policy recommendation and your editorial presentation.


  • Every student enrolled in E4901x and E4903x must work in a six-person "innovation panel".
  • Students in E4903x will take leadership of the panel and be responsible for all final documents and presentations. However, your panel must work together as a team
  • Each "innovation panel" must define a clearly stated science or technology question. After in-class discussion, you will submit a draft innovation plan, which I will review, revise, and return for your use.
  • Based on your innovation plan you must prepare an interim report (no longer than three pages in 14 pt font) and a four-page slide presentation. You must provide a summary, background, and technology plan (which will probably include research and development.)
  • After feedback from the class, each innovation panel must complete their final report (no longer than six pages in 14 pt font) and prepare a slide presenation to the class.


This Web Site is a basic resource for APPH E4901 & E4903.

Copies of lecture notes will be available for download in Adobe PDF formats.

A key resource will be several invited lectures (T.B.D.) from energy and climate experts at Columbia University.

A preliminary lecture plan is llisted below. I anticipate changes as we move along. Some topics may require more lecture time, and some will require less. Depending on your interests and comments, we may change some of the topics in the last third of the course.

Lecture Dates Topics
Sept 9

Introduction to the 2015 Applied Physics Seminar.

Sept 16

Understanding Climate Science

Energy balance and planetary climate. Question: what is the average power balance of the Earth's surface?

See "Climate change impacts: The growth of understanding," by Spencer Weart, in Physics Today, September 2015.

See IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, and summary.

In the news:

Sept 23

What powers humanity?

Sept 30

Innovation on the short-term and the long-term

Oct 7 

Group discussion about policy team charges and team work

Idea Summaries and Discussion Questions

Oct 14

Prof. Modi

Prof. Vijay Modi, Director of Sustainable Engineering Lab

Prof. Modi lead the UN Millennium Project effort on the role of energy and energy services in reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). Currently, he is focuse on making consumer-scaled versions of technology that is normally supersized available to developing countries. “The key is to figure out how to make innovation happen in a low-cost market.” He adds that the engineer’s dream is not only a new device but one that is maintenance free. “Why not create a small-scale generator that is robust?”

Oct 21

Team Project Discussion

Notes and Key Issues Summary

Oct 28

Prof. Ah-Hyung "Alissa" Park, Interim Director of Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy

Prof. Park is an expert in energy, environmental engineering and particle technology. Prof. Park’s research interests are carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS); sustainable energy conversion systems; synthesis of hydrogen and liquid fuels from alternative energy sources.

Nov 4

Dr. Gavin A. Schmidt, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS)

Dr. Schmidt's research seeks to understand the variability of the climate. In particular, how varying atmospheric forcings relate to variations due to "natural" (unforced) climate variability such as oscillations in the ocean's circulation or atmospheric modes like the North Atlantic Oscillation. Dr. Schmidt is particularly interested in ways to evaluate climate models and how improvements in models of past climate changes can inform future climate projections.

Nov 9

Monday: Team Presentations

Nov 11

Prof. Modi

Prof. Yaun Yang

Our research interests include designing materials and devices to address energy and environmental challenges, especially electrochemical energy storage & conversion, and thermal energy harvesting & management. The research activities involve exploration of novel materials and chemistry for advanced energy storage, development of high-performance catalysis, advanced materials and devices for thermal energy harvesting and management, and investigation of fundamental structure-property correlations in materials.

Nov 16-20

No class: Annual Meeting of APS Divsion of Plasma Physics

Nov 25

Final Team Assignment

Nov 30-Dec 2

Monday: (All Teams!) Review Innovation Plan/Proposal

Wednesday: (Blue and Green Teams!) 20 min presentation of final Innovation Plan/Proposal

Dec 7-9

Monday: (Yellow and Orange Teams!) 20 min presentation of final Innovation Plan/Proposal

Wednesday: (Red Teams) 20 min presentation of final Innovation Plan/Proposal, and

End of year "science for policy" celebration and recap

Student Innovation Panels

All students in APPH E4903 will make a presentation on the technical motivation for your innovation plan and submit to your classmates a summary report describing your plan to the general public.

Student Innovation teams are listed below:

Student Innovation Teams

Anton Baleato Lizancos and Richard Cresswell presenting their Team Report

Richard and Anton

Final Presentations

Useful Links and References

Professor Michael E. Mauel
Department of Applied Physics
Columbia University

Go to Prof. Mauel's HomePage