Instructor: Robert G. Brown Room 260
Email address: rgb at phy.duke.edu Cell Phone: 919-280-8443
Course Web page address: http://www.phy.duke.edu/rgb/Class/phy55.php
Text: Universe, by Freedman, Geller and Kaufmann, 9th ed.
Physics 55 is Astronomy - a comprehensive review of the science and observational methodology of deciphering the visible Universe. It begins with a review of history and philosophy (astronomy played a key role in developing a rational and scientific worldview over several thousand years of civilization) leading to the scientific method as a valid way of ascertaining probable truth of assertions about the world. It continues with a review of what we know and how we know key astronomical facts about the Earth, the Earth-moon system, the Sun, the Earth-Sun system, the planets (and other interesting near-space objects) and the Solar System, the local group of stars (ones that can be located using parallax), the Milky Way galaxy, the local group of galaxies (ones within a few million light years) and the deep space observations of distant galaxies and the microwave background that are evidence of the Big Bang.
At all points both learning the facts and understanding why we believe them to be facts is emphasized. Students will not need any particular complicated mathematics to excel in the course, but will need to be able to understand some relatively simple geometry and trigonometry and to be able to visualize things using geometric drawings and compute things with simple algebra and arithmetic.
A final point of emphasis in the course is learning how to use modern instrumentation - personal computers and telescopes - to observe a wide range of objects of interest in the night sky and to learn to ``navigate'' the celestial heavens using star charts and/or planetarium software. Amateur astronomy is a rewarding hobby that can last a lifetime and that isn't terribly expensive (a very good telescope indeed can cost anywhere from $500 to $1500). Amateur astronomers over the years have made many significant contributions to science, including the discovery of asteroids, moons, comets, and supernovas. The big observatories do their best to watch the sky, but - there is a lot of sky! They also spend most of their time watching one small part of it. Amateurs watch different parts of the whole thing as their interests dictate, and not infrequently are the first to see something ``interesting'' - and get their name on it!