Syllabus: Entropy and Human Activity

T3 4151

This course will NOT be taught during the 2012-13 school year.
It may or may not ever be taught again.

With the exception of this announcement, this syllabus and the rest of the web site
are preserved as they were in March, 2006, at the conclusion of the last time the course was taught, as a four-hour, quarter course, under the name T322 415A. (If taught again, it will be a three-hour, semester course.)

Winter, 2006, Call Number 06449

Instructor      Dr. Richard D. Piccard
Office          Computer Services Center 106A 
Office Phone    593-1017 
Office Hours    By Appointment (M-F, 9-5).  Walk-in assistance may
                be available; call ahead, if you can.  
Class Hours     Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday: 8:10 - 9:00 AM
Class Location  Bentley 015, except as announced in class

Course Description   Texts   Prerequisites

Attendance   Disability Policy   Performance Evaluation

Academic Integrity   Tentative Schedule   Tier III 415A Home Page

Course Description

Both world population and per capita consumption are increasing exponentially. Burning fossil fuels creates toxic byproducts and also "greenhouse gases" that accelerate global warming. Extractive industries (e.g., agriculture and mining) reduce the natural resources available to future generations.

Matter and energy are conserved, but physical processes transform both into forms less readily useful (thereby "increasing entropy"). We apply this concept of entropy to human activity, critically examining works by advocates of solar and nuclear power, from the viewpoints of, and using the patterns of inquiry of, several disciplines (e.g., history, theology, economics, physics, politics, engineering, biology, chemistry, ethics, and sociology).

In order to provide technical background, we discuss several topics in the physical sciences in some detail, including

The course does not presume that you have already encountered these concepts.

Can we expect solar or nuclear power to "save the day?" Should humanity change priorities to minimize increases of entropy? To what extent can physical principles sensibly be generalized so far? These and other questions provide a focus to our inquiry.


There are two required texts:

  1. Jeremy Rifkin, with Ted Howard, 1989, Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World, Revised Edition, Bantam. This book is currently out of print, but arrangements have been made through Follett's to re-print enough copies for the course. (The entire book will be assigned; you should purchase this book.)

  2. Bernard L. Cohen, 1990, The Nuclear Energy Option: An Alternative for the 90s, Plenum Press. This book is currently out of print, but arrangements have been made through Grade-A Notes to re-print enough copies for the course. (Approximately two-thirds of this book will be assigned -- exactly those parts that Grade-A Notes is re-printing; you should purchase this book.)

In addition to these two required texts, there are a number of other resources that you will use during the course:


Senior standing. If you do not meet this requirement, you will be dropped from this course by mid-quarter. If you have any questions about your eligibility, please make sure of your status as quickly as possible, while you can still add an alternate course.

Disability Policy

Every reasonable attempt will be made to remove any physical barrier that might hamper the ability of an individual to learn in this course. If you have a physical or learning limitation that would impact your attendance, preparation, participation, or timely completion of assignments, please discuss this limitation with the instructor promptly. The University and its faculty are committed to helping meet your individual needs and to supporting your efforts for a quality education.


You are expected to attend all class sessions. Valid excuses (serious illness, family emergency, etc.) will be accepted. You are expected to exhibit responsible behavior, informing the instructor in advance if you will miss a class (you or a friend must call or see the instructor, or call the department office, or send an E-mail to the instructor, as soon as possible). Depending on the circumstances, such notice sent after the time of the class or exam may be rejected.

A roll call will be taken each class period. Each no-call, no-show absence beyond three will result in a 0.1-letter-grade penalty in your course mark that will be applied after the calculation outlined in the next section. If you are tardy, it is your responsibility to check with the instructor after class to ensure that your presence was noted.

What you get out of this course depends on what you put into it. Experience has demonstrated that an irresponsible approach is a sure path to a miserable outcome.

Performance Evaluation

There will be three exams: two midterms and a final exam. In addition to the exams, students will also be graded on their formal oral report, on their term paper, and on their class participation. The grading scheme is as follows:

Components              Weight

Presentation               10 %
Class Participation        10 %
Mid Term 1                 10 %
Mid Term 2                 15 %
Final Exam                 25 %
Term Paper                 30 %

Each of these grading components is discussed in more detail below. Your grade for each component will be expressed on a GPA-type scale (4=A, 3=B, 2=C, etc.) and the weights indicated above applied to calculate the course mark.


You will make one formal presentation of between six and twelve minutes duration, reporting on a scholarly paper you have chosen with the instructor's agreement. Most of these papers will be ones provided by the instructor, from a list published in advance, so that you can make your choice knowing the available alternatives. The current list is on-line at

The number of articles somewhat exceeds the number of students, so that there is an element of choice, but all subject areas will be represented among those chosen.

The primary criterion for evaluating your presentation will be the technical content of your presentation (including accuracy, selection of topics to include or not, and appropriate level for your audience). Secondary criteria for evaluating your presentation will be such mechanical issues as enunciation, quality of visual aids, coordination of the talk with those visual aids, eye contact with the audience, and duration of the talk. See the course announcements page for other tips.

Class Participation

Ensure that all cell phones and pagers are turned off, or are in a silent mode!

Failure to attend the class meetings, or unusually constructive or destructive class participation, will impact your course mark. The evaluation of class participation is necessarily subjective. The evaluation will reflect whether your behavior constituted an effective use of class time for your own learning and for your classmates' learning. For example, asking relevant questions about things you don't already know, and correctly answering other people's questions are both appropriate; monopolizing class time is not.

Roughly once a week (see the tentative schedule, below), there will be discussion of questions (distributed in advance) on the current topics. This discussion will include in-class and electronic opportunities for contributions from each class member. The instructor's tally of participation will be a major consideration in evaluating the class participation component of your course mark. You should consider the questions in advance and come to class prepared to respond to several of them.


Each of the exams is cumulative, but the later exams will emphasize the material covered since the previous exam. Details will be announced prior to the exams. There will be matching, multiple-choice, and short essay questions. The short-essay questions will often be variations on questions from the class discussions. The progressively increased weighting of the later examinations reflects the greater portion of the course that is subject to examination, and also provides an opportunity for the students and instructor to become calibrated to each other.

  • Exam 1 will cover Rifkin, Parts One through Three; Cohen, Chapters 1-4; the Physics Lectures through the week prior to the exam; and the student reports on history, physics, and chemistry readings.

  • Exam 2 will cover all of the topics of Exam 1, and will also cover Rifkin, Parts Four and Five; Cohen, Chapters 8-10; the Physics Lectures through the week prior to the exam; and the student reports on biology, economics, and sociology readings, with a somewhat greater emphasis on the later material.

  • The Final Exam covers the whole course, with a somewhat greater emphasis on the later material.

Term Paper

The detailed expectations for the term paper will be provided in class and on-line, including an outline of sugested topic categories and a commentary on technical writing. You must earn a passing grade on the term paper in order to pass the course. The primary points are as follows:

  • The 30% of the course grade that the term paper contributes will be based on three submissions:

    • 5% of the course grade for an outline of the whole paper (to include the Roman Numerals and capital letters levels), together with a draft version of any two or three consecutive pages, due sixth week Wednesday at the start of class;

    • 5% of the course grade for a complete draft of the whole paper, due ninth week Monday at the start of class; the sooner you bring it to me, the more thoughtful I will be able to be in commenting on it, and the more time you will have to respond to my comments;

    • 20% of the course grade for the final version; in order to more efficiently improve future offerings of this course, you are to submit the bibliography and any other endnotes both printed, as part of the paper, and also as an E-mail message to the instructor; the printed paper, including references, and also the E-mailed references, are both due tenth week Friday at 4:55 PM.

  • Penalties for late submissions will be as follows:

    • For the outline and early draft, one-third of a letter grade off if submitted later that same day, before 4:55 PM; one letter grade off if submitted the next day at the start of class; one-and-a-third letter grade off if submitted during the day after it was due, before 4:55 PM, and so on.

    • For the final version, one-third of a letter grade off if the references are not submitted electronically by the deadline. No late submissions of the printed final version will be accepted; instead, I will use a grade equal to two letter grades less than the ninth-week draft earned. Therefore, if your ninth-week draft earned a grade of C+ or worse, you must submit an acceptable term paper by the deadline in order to pass the course. If the references have not been submitted electronically by the time I am ready to submit grades, I will report a grade of Incomplete to the Registrar.

  • All three submissions should be typed or computer printed, double-spaced, with a reasonable font and margins. If in doubt, show me some sample pages! (I will, of course, tell you if there are problems with the pages you submit sixth and ninth weeks.)

  • Your paper should include

    • a first, separate, cover (title) page that is the only place where your name appears;

    • a second, separate, page with an abstract ("executive summary") of between one-third of a page and one full page, and with the paper's title displayed again at the top;

    • a minimum of ten and a maximum of fifteen full pages of main body text of the paper (i.e., not counting the title page, abstract, figures, bibliography, etc.); the first page of the main body may display page number 1 or may conceal the page number, but the second page of the main body should display page number 2, and so on;

    • a bibliography at the end;

    • appropriate citations within the text that refer to items in the bibliography.

  • It should refer to something in Rifkin's book. As you will soon see, this is not a very onerous restriction!

  • The bibliography should include at least three on-line and at least three hardcopy (book or periodical) resources that are not listed in this syllabus. Using items from the various bibliographies linked from this syllabus is encouraged. The ambitious student will, of course, find other resources, as well.

  • Cite the source by name and year whenever you quote a source or copy a figure. Collect your citations in a reference list or bibliography at the end of the paper (do not use bottom-of-the-page-footnotes).

  • On-line resources must be cited with sufficient information to enable the instructor to find them: include the author's title for the document and the complete URL.

  • The term paper should present the results of sustained investigation and thought, presented as if the intended audience included your classmates and the instructor. You may present an even-handed exposition on your topic, or a fact-based, reasoned argument in support of a particular position. Your paper will be evaluated on the basis of unambiguous distinction between fact and opinion, and clarity of expression and reasoning to support your opinion, not on whether the instructor holds the same opinion. A few extended quotes may be appropriate, but the bulk of the paper should be in your own words. The primary criteria for evaluating the paper will be the following:

    • the relevance of the topic to the course;

    • the appropriate choices of material to include and to exclude;

    • presented at a level designed to be understandable and informative to your classmates;

    • evident presumption that the reader attended class and paid attention (you may include only limited reprise of text or lecture material, designed to tie your new material to what we already know);

    • inclusion of substantial material beyond the text and lectures of the course, so that we will learn something (and, of course, demonstrating that you have learned something in the process of preparing the paper);

    • making appropriate and effective use of the English language.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is extremely important. Please consult the most recent edition of the "Student Handbook", published by Student Affairs, and the information provide online by University Judiciaries, for further information on the Student Code of Conduct and Academic Policies.

Cheating on examinations, submitting the work of others as if it were your own, or plagiarism in any form will result in penalties ranging from an "F" on the assignment to expulsion from the University, depending on the severity of the offense. If your behavior during an examination presents the appearance of cheating, you will be warned, and may be asked to change seats at that time. This is not a presumption of your guilt, but rather a preventive measure to ensure the integrity of the examination process. Because the range of possible sources is so great that plagiarism cannot always be proved, if your term paper appears to have been plagiarized, the instructor may reject the paper but choose to permit you to write another paper, on a different, approved topic, to get credit for the course.

Tentative Schedule

DATE TOPIC/TASK Background Readings
Week 1 1/3 Introduction to World Views Rifkin, Part I Into the Greenhouse World Deluge and Drought World Views The Greeks and the Five Ages of History: Cycles and Decay The Christian World View Toward the Modern World View The Machine Age The Architects of the Mechanical World View 1/4 LISTSERV and Online Resources Time Line of significant events History reading assignments 1/5 *3 PM - 5 PM Office Hours in CSC 106A 1/6 Physics Lecture Introduction System, Environment, Temperature Heat and Work Conservation of Energy Reversible and Irreversible Work Distribute discussion questions for Rifkin, Part One
Week 2 1/9 Send a one-page E-mail to LISTSERV, before class, describing your background and interests Discuss Rifkin, Part One 1/10 Introduction to Rifkin, Part II The Entropy Law Cosmology and the Second Law Time, Metaphysics, Entropy Life and the Second Law Exosomatic Instruments and Energy Physics Lecture Definition of Entropy Heat Engines Isolated, Closed, and Open Systems The Statement of the Second Law 1/11 Book Review: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls Physics and chemistry reading assignments 1/13 Reports from students who read on history Distribute discussion questions for Rifkin, Part Two
Week 3 1/16 Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Holiday -- no class 1/17 Discuss Rifkin, Part Two 1/18 Introduction to Rifkin, Part III Entropy: A New Historical Frame History and Entropy Watersheds The Last Great Energy Watershed Technology External Costs Diminishing Returns of Technology Institutional Development Specialization World Views and Energy Environments Biology reading assignments 1/20 Reports from students who read on physics or chemistry
Week 4 1/23 Book Review: Steady State Economics, by Herman E. Daly Physics Lecture Examples of the Second Law in action Counter-current heat exchangers in biology and engineering Feedback Systems: stability, responsiveness, and delay Distribute discussion questions for Rifkin, Part Three 1/24 Discuss Rifkin, Part Three 1/25 Introduce Nuclear Energy Cohen, Chapters 1-4 Nuclear Power Do We Need More Power Plants? Environmental Problems with Fossil Fuels Is the Public Ready for More Nuclear Power? Term paper rules and suggested topics Economics reading assignments 1/27 Reports from students who read on biology
Week 5 1/30 Introduction to Nonrenewable Energy Rifkin, Part IV The Energy Crisis Nuclear Fission Nuclear Fusion Minerals Distribute discussion questions for Cohen, Chapters 1-4 1/31 Discuss Cohen, Chapters 1-4 2/1 Book Review: Living Within Limits, by Garrett Hardin Sociology reading assignments Distribute discussion questions for Rifkin, Part Four
2/2 *7:00 - 9:00 PM: Study session Bentley 015
2/3 8:10 - 9:00 AM: Midterm EXAM in class
Week 6 2/6 Discuss Rifkin, Part Four 2/7 Reports from students who read on economics 2/8 Outline of Term Paper, with two pages of text, due at start of class Introduction to Understanding Risks Cohen, Chapter 8 Introduction to Entropy and the Rifkin, Part V Industrial Age Economics Agriculture Transportation Urbanization The Military Education The Environment Health Physics Lecture Using Statistics Microscopic and Macroscopic States What is Fair? Statistical Definition of Entropy Simulation with coins Entropy of Mixing 2/10 Physics Lecture: Radioactivity
Week 7 2/13 Reports from students who read on sociology 2/14 Introduction to Nuclear Power Cohen, Chapters 9 & 10 Plant Costs and Designs Distribute discussion questions for Cohen, Chapter 8 2/15 Discuss Cohen, Chapter 8 2/17 Physics Lecture: Ionizing Radiation Distribute discussion questions for Rifkin, Part Five
Week 8 2/20 Discuss Rifkin, Part Five Introduction to A New World View Rifkin, Part VI-A The Greenhouse Transition A New Infrastructure for the Solar Age Third World Development Domestic Redistribution of Wealth Values and Institutions in an Entropic Society Distribute discussion questions for Cohen, Chapters 9 and 10 2/21 Discuss Cohen, Chapters 9 and 10 Physics Lecture Nature of Light Photon Gas Emission and Absorption How do we See? Entropy of Photons 2/22 Introduction to A New World View Rifkin, Part VI-B Reformulating Science Reformulating Education A Second Christian Reformation Facing the Entropy Crisis From Despair to Hope Physics Lecture Energy Source in the Sun Emission by the Sun Absorption by the Earth Entropy Balance Other Long-Term Energy Sources Distribute discussion questions for first half of Rifkin, Part Six
2/23 *7:00 - 9:00 PM: Study session Bentley 015
2/24 8:10 - 9:00 AM: Midterm EXAM in class
Week 9 2/27 Complete draft of Term Paper, due at start of class Discuss first half of Rifkin, Part Six 2/28 Introduction to Radioactive Waste Cohen, Chapters 11 & 12 Physics Lecture Chemical Reactions Reversibility The Third Law Photons and Chemistry Distribute discussion questions for second half of Rifkin, Part Six 3/1 Discuss second half of Rifkin, Part Six Book Review: Normal Accidents: living with high-risk technologies, by Charles Perrow 3/3 Book Review: Normal Accidents, by Charles Perrow, continued Distribute discussion questions for Cohen, Chapters 11 and 12
Week 10 3/6 Introduction to The Solar Dream Cohen, Chapter 14 Discuss Cohen, Chapters 11 and 12 Physics Lecture The Biosphere Self Organization Ecology Extinction Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, and Ozone Distribute discussion questions for Cohen, Chapter 14 3/7 Discuss Cohen, Chapter 14 Book Review: Normal Accidents, by Charles Perrow, concluded Distribute synthesis discussion questions 3/8 Discussion of Rifkin and Cohen 3/10 Concluding discussion of Rifkin and Cohen Class evaluation
3/10 4:55 PM: Absolute Deadline for Term Paper 3/12 *7:00 - 9:00 PM: Evening Study Session, Bentley 015 3/13 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM: FINAL EXAM in Bentley 015

Return to Tier III 415A page:

Dick Piccard revised this on-line version of the syllabus ( on October 24, 2012.

Comments and suggestions are welcome by E-mail to ""