Spring 2018


general description and expectations


exams, homework, grading

academic integrity & classroom etiquette

syllabus for spring 2018

CALENDAR -- Spring 2018

handouts for lectures

homework and exercises


Meeting time:   M-Th 10:00-11:50

Place:                 Low 3039



Instructor:         E.B. Watson

                                      Office: 1C31 J-ROWL

                                      Phone:  8838


                                      office hours:  M 12:00-2:00



TAs:                    Oliver Wolfe

                                      Office:  BC01 J-ROWL


                                      office hrs:  W 3:00-4:00

                                                         F  3:00-4:00*

                             Adrian Castro

                                       Office:  BC01 J-ROWL


                                       office hrs: M 4:00-5:00


*Alternate times can be arranged by appointment if you are unable to attend regular office hours.

General nature of the course and expected outcomes

This course is about the chemical systems and processes of the planet we live on. It covers a diversity of topics in both chemistry and geology, with two specific objectives: 1) to help students develop skills in chemistry that are useful in the study of earth systems; and 2) to provide students with insight into the origins of -- and the interactions among -- the Earth's atmosphere, oceans and rocks. The overarching goal of the course is to shed light on the Earth as a collection of complex, interacting chemical systems -- systems that provide ample opportunities to apply both basic and advanced principles of chemistry.  Students who complete the course in good standing will appreciate the complexity, breadth and scales of Earth-systems chemistry and have a working knowledge of relevant kinetic and equilibrium phenomena.  They will also emerge with tools and insights that will be essential to informed decision-making on environment and energy issues.

Useful background

It will be helpful to have taken some introductory-level geoscience (e.g., Geology I and/or II), but (as many of you know) these have not been enforced as formal prerequisites. Students lacking a background in geoscience may find it helpful to do additional reading. Students who have not taken introductory college-level chemistry might find the course a struggle, and should consult with the instructor before the term gets underway. Some prior knowledge of physical chemistry will be helpful, but much of this will be taught as we go. Basic knowledge of calculus will be assumed.

Use of class time

The 2-hour class periods (MTh 10:00-11:50) will be used for formal introduction of material in lecture format (generally not for the full 110 minutes!), and also for supplementary discussion, in-class exercises, and introduction of homework assignments. Attendance is encouraged simply because we will not follow the text page by page (or even chapter by chapter), and you will be at a disadvantage if you have not participated -- or at least listened -- in class.


The text is Essentials of Geochemistry (2nd edition), by Prof. John V. Walther. Depending on your study habits, you will be able to do well in the course without purchasing the text, because heavy reliance is placed on the lecture handouts provided by Prof. Watson.  However, the handouts are not "stand-alone" resources, so if you plan on skipping class a lot, the text will help you fill in gaps that are addressed orally in class but not detailed in the handouts. Essentials of Geochemistry is available now at the RPI bookstore or (perhaps more cheaply secondhand) at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. It is an excellent introductory text that covers most of the field of geochemistry at an appropriate level.  I strongly recommend this book for students who think their future career paths might involve work in geochemistry or a related field. The treatment of aquatic (aqueous) geochemistry is especially good because this is Prof. Walther's own area of expertise. The book is also available at reduced cost as an e-book; just go to .


Exams, etc.


There will be three exams during the term, on FEBRUARY 15,  MARCH 26 and APRIL 30 (see calendar below).  The exams will cover material presented mainly during the preceding 8 or 9 class periods.  One exam score will be "de-valued" as described under "grading" below; the third exam -- although not a cumulative final -- will include general questions (totaling ~20% of the exam) drawn from material covered during the entire term,.  A review session will be held before each exam.


There will be 5 or 6 homework assignments over the course of the semester, handed out at ~2 week intervals beginning in the second week of class. Most of these are expected to require no more than 2-3 hours (often less) for completion. Assignments will be designed as "intuition-builders" or to illustrate concepts and principles, not as crank-and-grind busywork.  Late homework assignments will be deducted 10% of the grade for each day they are late and will not be accepted later than 7 days after the due date.

Question of the Day

At the end of each class period, you will be asked to answer (in writing) a single, very broad question about the material discussed that day.

Course grade

Exam scores will comprise 75% of the course grade. The lowest exam score will be weighted 15%, the others 30%.  The homework will count 25% of the course grade.  A reasonably good answer to each Question of the Day will add 0.2 points extra credit to your final grade (for a maximum possible total of 5 extra points for the term). 

Statement regarding Academic Integrity

Good student-teacher relationships are built on trust. Students should have confidence that we have made appropriate decisions about the structure and content of this course, and that we will make a strong effort to accommodate the varying needs of a diverse group of students. Teachers, in turn, must have confidence that the assignments and exams you turn in represent your own work.

The Rensselaer Handbook defines various forms of Academic Dishonesty and procedures for responding to them. All forms are violations of the trust between students and teachers. Students should familiarize themselves with the appropriate portion of the Rensselaer Handbook and note that the penalties for plagiarism and other forms of cheating can be quite harsh.

In this course, collaboration or group work in the form of discussion of recitation exercises and homework is encouraged. However, the final paperwork (or electronic file) you hand in should be written by you in your own words. Collaboration of any sort on exams will be considered cheating.

Classroom etiquette

Use of smart phones, tablets and laptops in the classroom will not be tolerated.  A 5- to 10-minute texting break will be allowed during each class period.


Spring 2018 SYLLABUS

January             18:      Course introduction

                        22:       Radiometric dating

                        25:       Isotopes in Geochemistry

                        29:       Cosmic abundances and origin of the nuclides


February            1:       Elemental abundances in the Earth

                          5:       Differentiation of the Earth (general)

                          8:       Differentiation of the Earth: crust, mantle and core

                        12:       Differentiation of the Earth: atmosphere and oceans

                        15:       EXAM 1

                        20:       Equilibrium fractionation of elements and isotopes 

                        22:       Equilibrium fractionation 2

                        26:       Kinetic fractionation of elements and isotopes


March                1:       Carbon cycle, part 1

                          5:       Carbon cycle, part 2

                          8:       Diffusion 1

                        19:       Diffusion 2

                        22:       Thermodynamics: introduction/review

                        26:       EXAM 2

                        29:      Thermodynamics & phase diagrams 1


April                   2:       Thermodynamics & phase diagrams 2

                          5:       Thermodynamics & phase diagrams 3

                          9:       Thermodynamics & phase diagrams 4

                        12:       Introduction to Aqueous geochemistry

                        16:       Nanogeochemistry; Surfaces 

                        19:       Aspects of environmental geochemistry

                        23:       Biogeochemistry

                        26:       Course review


May                   1:       EXAM 3          




Class meeting calendar


Handouts for lectures

To get the class handouts for the date you want, click on the appropriate button for a PDF file you can print or download (files are password-protected)...

  Course Intro (1/18)       Radiometric Dating 1       Radiometric Dating 2      Radiometric Dating 3      Element abundances      Earth abundances

Differentiation 1 (Feb. 8)      Differentiation 2 (Feb. 12&20)      Fractionation 1 (Feb. 20&22)      Fractionation 2 (Feb. 26)      Carbon cycle 1 (March 1)

  Carbon Cycle 2 (March 5-8)      Diffusion 1 (March 19-22)      Diffusion 2 (March 26)      Thermo1 (April 13-16)      Thermo 2 (April 19-->)

Exercises, homework, etc.

  Homework 1 (due 2/8)      Homework 2 (due 3/5)      Homework 3 (due 4/9)      Homework 4 (due May 4)

  Old Exam 3 (2017)


G-x movies

solids only    eutectic    solution loop    azeotrope   

Reading to accompany and augment lectures (will be updated as the semester progresses; don't hesitate to ask for guidance on further background reading at any point in the course)

Below are suggestions for reading to supplement the material discussed in class.  Note that neither text does covers the topics in the same order we will!

Nature and Differentiation of the Earth:  Walther, chapter 2

Radioactive Decay and Age Dating:  Walther, chapter 10, pp. 371-387, 399-404

Nucleosynthesis (origin of the elements): Elements article by Shatz (click )