SPRING 2009Astronomy Syllabus
Welcome to ASTRONOMY. This course attempts to do more than just fill a slot in the curriculum. It will provide you with an introduction to one of the most exciting subjects that you will encounter during your academic career. We hope this is true not just from the perspective of content knowledge and the experiential activities but also from that of pedagogy and how this course is taught. It will, in a sense, be radical from both perspectives! You will be introduced not only to the fascinating discoveries in our very own solar system, but beyond that to the limits of our galaxy and the bounds of the universe. We will explore, thanks to the latest space probes (and some information is coming in daily, details we could only have dreamed of on the planets and their satellites. We will extend our studies to the exotic, including black holes and quasars and pulsars and what cosmology and relativity tell us about the origin and the ultimate destiny of the universe. All this will almost be meaningless without real relevance to our fragile Earth, the place we live and to ourselves and how we fit into the cosmos. This course will be anything but boring!
You will learn an enormous amount of science. Astronomy differs from most sciences in that we are not able to test our hypotheses in the laboratory as we might in a traditonal physics or chemistry course. Yet the Greeks considered what we know as astronomy to be the most fundamental science. The Nobel Prize in Science is awarded first to physics, then chemistry. The committee considers Astronomy so fundamental and pervasive that it does not award a special prize to it. (Although astronomers or astrophysicists have won the Nobel Prize) It is thought to be the basis of all the other sciences. All the information about the stars, galaxies and the universe itself comes to us through tiny beams of light. We must study these beams of light and from them determine the chemical makeup of objects, their thermal and physical properties and predict their evolution and life cycle. Inference from the known physical processes and the acquired data is indeed our foremost tool. It is exciting too. No where on earth can we create vacuums like exist in outer space. No laboratory can reproduce the temperatures and pressures that take place in stellar interiors. We can only describe in theory the kinds of relativistically degenerate states of matter that make up while dwarfs and neutron stars.
Our studies do not attempt to make scientists out of you. Science so often is avoided (if possible.) And frequently students who have to take science (eg. a science requirement) will take something they had success with before. Intellectually there is no reason anyone cannot be successful in this class. We need to satisfy our curiosities and try to pull together the information that makes this the cogent subject it is. We will use basic scientific principles, usually without the cumbersome burden of mathematics, to better understand the universe we live in. The American public is, on the whole, scientifically illiterate, beseiged daily with a plethora of facts, some sense and some nonsense, all in the name of science. Hopefully, by completing this course, you will be better informed to be a better consumer (a sort of pragmatic reason) and a better citizen, capable of helping to determine public policy that affects our very future.
There is another important consideration. You will be exposed to a tremendous amount of material. But I am firmly convinced that, while you will understand better how the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe works, many of these details will become "foggy" with time. You will not, however, forget the first time you see the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter and hold in your own hands, $968 Million dollars worth of real moon rocks. (The intrincsic value is probably only a nickel. The replacement value; i.e., going back to the Moon and bring home some more lunar samples, is the multi-million dollar figure.) This course, in addition to everything else, is observationally based. We have a nice little observatory. Several prominent colleges in this state have copied our design and built in features we've recommended. We have a computer controlled 14" telescope that you will run yourself (after you get used to things.) You'll be able to use it for visual observations, of course, as well as photometry, spectroscopy and astrophotography. Additionally we have some smaller telescopes for group observing, but some problems developed a year ago when air conditioning ducts were installed on the roof and the tower of Mendel Hall. This cut into the space we use to see the night sky and place our smaller telescopes. Then there was the reroofing of Mendel which cut the door and walls of the observatory. The observatory needs to be moved but until then we will use it with extreme caution. You will also have a chance to use a remote telescope at some distant observatory! Observing is a formal requirement. Now, this is also Minnesota and we can only count on about half of our nights to really be clear. The observatory has been closed to the public (because of construction in Mendel hall) so no public nights are available until better access can be arranged. That means try your best to be here during lab sessions. Also, there are some indoor experiments you will do that can make astronomy more meaningful, like investigating the nature of light, spectra, how telescopes work and we've got some computer simulations that help you to better understand what astronomers do.
Our class, both the "lecture" (although we are eliminating lecture in the traditional sense of the word and replacing it with Content ) and the "lab" (we replace that with Observational Activities) are "taught" (this word too should be replaced) in a computer parlor. But much of the information will come from other sources, namely the multimedia forms used in the classroom and the internet..Consequently, you are expected to attend class. It will be very difficult to do well without attending class. We also recognize that this course is observationally based, in other words we expect to see with our own eyes things we've never seen before. It forms a special foundation for this course. We cannot replace that with the world wide web. But, we can supplement it for the Hubble Space Telescope and other devices have given us images we could not have imagined. We'll be looking at the NASA archives, JPL, the HST,the Galileo, Cassini probes, etc. Some of this information won't be printed for a while, it's that new and exciting! Packaged with your text is Starry Night Pro, a desktop Planetarium program. You will be given instructions on how to use it. If you do the things identified in the syllabus , you just can't help but learn the fundamentals of astronomy. .
Dr. Flower has been selected as a NASA Ambassador to the Solar System. (If only I could get frequent flyer miles; hmmm...) I am updated with the most current information about all the solar system probes including Galileo, Cassini and the others. This information is something you cannot get from a textbook and I will have it in class for you. I also am a member of the Speakers Bureau for the NASA Glenn Center in Cleveland.
You'll be doing a lot with computers, not just accessing information, but also in preparation of graded reports, etc. You'll use Excel Spreadsheet and WORD for word processing and performing simulations (eg. CLEA) of photometry, etc and capturing images from CD ROMs. This should suffice to fulfill your computer literacy requirement. So you'll be challenged and pushed (not beyond any reasonable expectations) and be rewarded in your level of expertise which will be significant. Besides, by using the web you'll form habits which will become patterns for a new way of learning. You'll also need a Lotus Notes account (or some other e-mail account such as Hotmail or Yahoo) so we can send E-mail and keep in touch, etc. This is a ! Without it you'll miss opportunities. We have to be able to communicate on almost a daily basis.
Now, we can't do it all. You will be shown a few simple, straight forward techniques that work and will get the job done. Your instructor does not know them all. No one person does. It will be doable! Because this is so experimental (and with such a risk, we have to be prepared for the remote chance of failure too) our syllabus will be fluid and changing week to week. It will always be improved. In fact, we'll sort of develop it as we go along, collaboratively. Note, I said collaboratively, not cooperatively. You can cooperate and be quite passive. You will be active participants in your learning. You will determine how much and how well you learn. Actually, the syllabus and set of objectives will be prescribed for the semester. But how we get there will be fluid. Things will change as new information is available, new web pages on the internet and new NASA discoveries. You are getting the most up to date course possible. You should NOT print out the syllabus as things will definitely change during the semester. You need to get in the habit of using it on-line in real time.
We are blessed this spring in that Mars has alien visitors (from the Earth.) Both Spirit and Opportunity are roaming the surface, far apart from each other. Yes, they still are, after three years! Additionally, planets are spaced in the sky so we can observe several of them this spring. The world is our oyster so to speak. We have a rich sky and a plethora of other things going on in astronomy. President Bush is pushing for a return to the Moon and a manned mission to Mars. You very well could be people who would staff such a mission. What a time to be alive! What a time to study ASTRONOMY!
There are some opportunities for you. Yes, YOU! One is in the operation of the observatory. If it turns your crank, we may need student researchers to help us in our own observatory, on observing runs to O'Brien (30" telescope at Marine, MN) and perhaps at WIRO in Wyoming or even Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Last spring we took two students to presnt papers at the American Astronomical Meeting in Hawaii.The department has a NASA grant to support some of these activities. In addition to traditional observing with optical telescopes, we also have installed a huge yagi antenna to monitor Jupiter and solar sensors to monitor visible and and UV solar radiation to better understand the ozone levels overhead. These can be used for both research and good, solid education in astronomy. We are currently upgrading our radio antenna to a log-periodic 17-30 MHz system. Your imagination is about the limit, and then some. These opportunities will be discussed in class. Of course, you'll need to develop some skills first, but you will. With that in mind, let's go:
There will be TWO major parts of this course used to determine your grade:
Content: There will be three periodic hour long examinations. These will generally be multiple choice tests and be accomplished online. So you can take the exam from anywhere, even in your bathrobes while wrapped around a cup of hot chocolate at home. We call them "Opportunities to Excel." A Final Exam will also be administered during the Final Exam week at the scheduled time. The Final Exam will be comprehensive over the entire course. It too, will be online. So even if you are in the Kingdom of Tonga (for example) you can take the final exam at the scheduled time.
Observing and Related Activities: There will be a total of twelve sessions scheduled. Because we are somewhat weather dependent we will have to be flexible. In general, whenever it is clear, we'll go out. Because of the winter temperatures, be sure to dress warmly because it gets cold out. In Minnesota, astronomers suffer! Hah! Three of these twelve will come from an observing journal. The mandatory ones will be the Lunar Sample (because NASA sends them on a certain date only) That leaves eight other activities. We'll discuss them in class. Actually, we'll count (for grade) the eleven best grades. This does not mean you should plan to "skip" or "cut" a lab, but that rather than placing the extra burden of making up some time sensitive activity (eg. when the lunar samples come from NASA) when you might be ill, you can rest more easily.
Because all three of these areas (periodic tests, final exam and labs) are important to measuring your learning, each will be weighted the same. i.e., for each of these areas you will receive a grade and the average of the combined grades will determine your final class standing. The advantage to this simple policy is obvious. It would be unwise to expect to get a good grade in the course while deficient in the other.
BLOCK 1:BLOCK 2:
Introduction: The Nature of Astronomy
The Cosmic Landscape
History of Astronomy
Gravity and Motion
Light and Atoms
Opportunity to Excel # 1
Survey of the Solar System
The Terrestrial Planets
The Outer Planets
Meteors, Asteroids, and Comets
Opportunity to Excel # 2
Women in Astronomy
The Sun, Our Star
Measuring the Properties of Stars
Stellar Remnants: White Swarfs, Neutron Stars, and Black Holes
Opportunity to Excel # 3
The Milky Way Galaxy
How the Universe Got to Its Present State
From Here to Eternity:
The Eventual Fate of the Universe
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
Desperately Seeking ET: Life in the Universe