SCIE 636
The Universe

William Herbst

Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution
Robert Kirshner, The Extravagant Universe
Course Description

Astronomers understand now that the Universe began with an explosion, called the Big Bang. It happened 13.7 billion years ago and we can describe the main events from about 1 trillionth of a second on. This is a remarkable achievement of human thought and forms a backdrop for everything we do in science. The story of how we came to this understanding is the topic of this course. Our focus will be on the largest scale of things – the Universe itself. The treatment is largely non-mathematical and accessible to any GLSP student, regardless of their science or math background (see below).

Class Meets

Mondays from 6:30-9:00 P.M. in Room 110 of Van Vleck Observatory. Please note that there is no parking available at the Observatory. You should park on Wyllis Avenue or in the Vine Street parking lot. You may find it useful to bring a flashlight, since the lighting close to the Observatory is deliberately kept dim. I also recommend that you dress warmly since we may spend some time outside or in a cold dome for viewing and it can get cold!

Background Required

The course assumes no familiarity with astronomy or even with physical science. All of that is provided in the lectures and reading. Some of our students will be very well versed in the subject, perhaps even teaching astronomy at the secondary school level. Others will have never taken a physics or astronomy course, even in college. I deal with that range of backgrounds by trying to teach at a level that is accessible to all. This has been successful over the years, so please do not avoid this course because you think you have too little (or too much) background for it. The odds are that you will not be the worst (or best) prepared student I have ever had! I have even had serious math phobics, so don’t worry, you will be fine.


Course grade is based equally on three components: 1) attendance and participation, 2) a term paper and 3) a class presentation based on your paper. Please do not be concerned that your lack of background will make it hard for you to complete 2) or 3). I have found, over the years, that with guidance, anyone can do well in this course, no matter what their background. The key thing, of course, is attendance. You cannot do well if you do not attend class, so don’t take the course if it doesn’t fit well with your schedule!

Course Schedule
January 28 Introduction to the Sky (Kuhn, Chapter 1)
February 4 Discovering the Universe (Kuhn, Chapters 2 and 3)
February 11 Gravity and Motion (Finish reading Kuhn)
February 18 Light, Atoms, Telescopes (Reading material provided in class)
February 25 Stars and Galaxies (Kirshner, Chapter 1)
March 3 Expansion of the Universe (Kirshner, Chapters 2-4)
March 24 The Cosmic Background Radiation (WMAP Web site)
March 31 Mapping the Universe (Finish reading Kirshner)
***Topic Selections/Outline Due***
April 7 Black Holes and Missing Mass (Depends on topic selection)
April 14 Student Presentations I
April 21 Student Presentations II
April 28 Summary and Future Work
***Papers Due***