at Herstmonceux Castle, U.K.



at Herstmonceux Castle, U.K.

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PHYS P15/3.0 - Astronomy I: The Solar System

Instructor: Dr. Chris Taylor

Course Description

Science and technology have radically changed human culture and our view of the Universe in which we live: so much so, that without some appreciation of science and its origins, we cannot be fully-informed members of modern society. Astronomy provides an excellent example of the scientific method at work, in a field that not only excites the imagination, but also drives beneficial technological innovations (for example in computing, electronics, navigation, and scanner technology).

This course is suitable for any student, but particularly for those without a strong science background, since it is taught mostly descriptively, with only occasional use of basic mathematics. Despite this, the course is not trivial: it conveys a real understanding of the Solar System in particular -- and of the Universe in general, since the Solar System cannot be fully comprehended other than in its wider spatial and temporal context.

Expected Learning Outcomes

The expected outcomes are a grasp of the following:

  • The current knowledge about the origin and evolution of the Solar System, and of its place in the Universe.
  • The historical development of astronomical theories and observations about the Solar System and the Universe.
  • The basics of observing the night sky, using some on-site telescopes.
  • The broader range of tools used in modern astronomy, including ground-based observatories and spacecraft of various kinds.
  • The origin and development of life on Earth, and the prospects for finding life elsewhere in the Universe.
Field Studies

There will be one on-site field trip to the Observatory Science Centre, now a charity-owned science education centre, but until a few years before the BISC was set up, the site of the former Royal Greenwich Observatory, after its transfer from the original Greenwich site of that institution. We also expect to arrange informal visits to the Space Geodesy Facility near Bader Hall, and may have a brief guest talk from the Facility's Director, Dr Graham Appleby, during one of our classes.

Several night-sky observation sessions - using telescopes, binoculars, and the naked-eye - will also be organized, giving students multiple opportunities to attend when convenient for them; because of the vagaries of  the weather, exact dates cannot be fixed in advance. Given the many demands on student time, it will not be compulsory to attend these sessions, which are intended mainly to stimulate interest in the subject; however, the final exam will include a section of short questions relating to such night-sky sessions, of which students will choose a subset to answer - thus providing an incentive for participation; students who have attended at least one or two sessions over the term (unlike students who have attended none) should have no difficulty in selecting some questions that they can answer.

A London field trip is planned to visit the original Royal Greenwich Observatory site, the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum; whilst at the Science Museum, we expect to watch a 20-minute 3D IMAX movie on the Hubble Space Telescope. The Royal Greenwich Observatory is rich in the history of astronomy: two particular topics are the “Longitude Problem”, and the discovery of the planet Neptune (the existence of which was predicted by Adams in England, and Le Verrier in France, using calculus). Five roads on the Castle estate are named after “Astronomer Royals'' who worked at Greenwich: Flamsteed (of whom there is a bust in the Castle's formal gardens), Maskelyne (a supporter of the "Lunar Distance Method'' for finding longitude), Halley (of Halley's comet fame), Bradley (credited with several important astronomical discoveries), and Airy (who failed to follow up on predictions of a new planet by Adams).

On each trip, a questionnaire will be handed out, requiring students to answer as many of the questions as possible, partly by exploring the sites, and partly by reading the course textbook, course notes, and Internet sources. Students can collaborate on the answers if they wish, and will have about ten days to do the assignment for each field-trip, but should be aware that similar questions will be set in the midterm and final exams, so that students who have not made a serious effort during field trips will be at a disadvantage. Some questions may be multiple-choice, whereas others may require phrases, short sentences, or paragraphs as answers.

Primary Research Expectations

Since astronomy is highly mathematical and technical, the extent to which research can be done during a general-interest course, aimed at a non-specialist audience, is limited. As described in the previous section, however, students will visit a site very important in the history of astronomy: the original Royal Greenwich Observatory. At the Science Museum on the same day-trip, they will also see displays on the sixteenth-century "Scientific Revolution", and originals or full-size replicas of several rockets and spacecraft used in space exploration; at the Natural History Museum, one of the best museums of its type in the world, they will see information on the geology and climatology of the Earth and other planets, and on the origin and evolution of life.

Students will also do a group presentation (in groups of four or five) to explain a "citizen science" research project from the "Zooniverse" website - a spin-off of the "Galaxy Zoo" project founded by Dr Chris Lintott of Oxford University and of the BBC's "Sky at Night" TV program.


The marks breakdown is as follows:

Field-trip questionnaire 1: 10%
Field-trip questionnaire 2: 10%
Midterm exam: 20%
Group presentation: 10%
Final exam: 40%
Attendance mark: 10%