Everyone loves to observe the beauty of the star-studded night sky, to say nothing of the dazzling images from the Hubble Space Telescope. But how many of us truly understand how stars shine, where Saturn’s rings come from, or why galaxies have their distinctive shapes? Observational astronomy excels at imaging and cataloging celestial objects, but it takes a more rigorous discipline to come up with physical explanations for them. That field is astrophysics.
Why are the rings around Saturn and the much fainter rings around Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune at roughly the same relative distances from the planet? Why are large moons spherical? And why are large moons only found in wide orbits (i.e., not close to the planets they orbit)? These problems lead to an analysis of tidal forces and the Roche limit. Close by calculating the density of the Sun based on Earth’s ocean tides.
Use your analytical skill and knowledge of gravity to probe the strange properties of black holes. Learn to calculate the Schwarzschild radius (also known as the event horizon), which is the boundary beyond which no light can escape. Determine the size of the giant black hole at the center of our galaxy and learn about an effort to image its event horizon with a network of radio telescopes.
Investigate our prime source of information about the universe: electromagnetic waves, which consist of photons from gamma ray to radio wavelengths. Discover that a dense collection of photons is comparable to a gas obeying the ideal gas law. This law, together with the Stefan-Boltzmann law, Wien’s law, and Kepler’s third law, help you make sense of the cosmos as the course proceeds.
Survey representative planets in our solar system with an astrophysicist’s eyes, asking what makes Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Jupiter so different. Why doesn’t Mercury have an atmosphere? Why is Venus so much hotter than Earth? Why is Jupiter so huge? Analyze these and other riddles with the help of physical principles such as the Stefan-Boltzmann law.
Consider the problem of gleaning information from the severely limited number of optical photons originating from astronomical sources. Our eyes can only do it so well, and telescopes have several major advantages: increased light-gathering power, greater sensitivity of telescopic cameras and sensors such as charge-coupled devices (CCDs), and enhanced angular and spectral resolution.
Non-visible wavelengths compose by far the largest part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Even so, many astronomers assumed there was nothing to see in these bands. The invention of radio and X-ray telescopes proved them spectacularly wrong. Examine the challenges of detecting and focusing radio and X-ray light, and the dazzling astronomical phenomena that radiate in these wavelengths.
Starting with the spectrum of sunlight, notice that thin dark lines are present at certain wavelengths. These absorption lines reveal the composition and temperature of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, and similar lines characterize other stars. More diffuse phenomena such as nebulae produce bright emission lines against a dark spectrum. Probe the quantum and thermodynamic events implied by these clues.
Take stock of the wide range of stellar luminosities, temperatures, masses, and radii using spectra and other data. In the process, construct the celebrated Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, with its main sequence of stars in the prime of life, including the Sun. Note that two out of three stars have companions. Investigate the orbital dynamics of these binary systems.
Embark on Professor Winn’s specialty: extrasolar planets, also known as exoplanets. Calculate the extreme difficulty of observing an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star in our stellar neighborhood. Then look at the clever techniques that can now overcome this obstacle. Review the surprising characteristics of many exoplanets and focus on five that are especially noteworthy.
Get a crash course in nuclear physics as you explore what makes stars shine. Zero in on the Sun, working out the mass it has consumed through nuclear fusion during its 4.5-billion-year history. While it’s natural to picture the Sun as a giant furnace of nuclear bombs going off non-stop, calculations show it’s more like a collection of toasters; the Sun is luminous simply because it’s so big.
Learn how stars work by delving into stellar structure, using the Sun as a model. Relying on several physical principles and sticking to order-of-magnitude calculations, determine the pressure and temperature at the center of the Sun, and the time it takes for energy generated in the interior to reach the surface, which amounts to thousands of years. Apply your conclusions to other stars.
Discover the fate of solar mass stars after they exhaust their nuclear fuel. The galaxies are teeming with these dim “white dwarfs” that pack the mass of the Sun into a sphere roughly the size of Earth. Venture into quantum theory to understand what keeps these exotic stars from collapsing into black holes, and learn about the Chandrasekhar limit, which determines a white dwarf’s maximum mass.
Trace stellar evolution from two points of view. First, dive into a protostar and witness events unfold as the star begins to contract and fuse hydrogen. Exhausting that, it fuses heavier elements and eventually collapses into a white dwarf—or something even denser. Next, view this story from the outside, seeing how stellar evolution looks to observers studying stars with telescopes.
Look inside a star that weighs several solar masses to chart its demise after fusing all possible nuclear fuel. Such stars end in a gigantic explosion called a supernova, blowing off outer material and producing a super-compact neutron star, a billion times denser than a white dwarf. Study the rapid spin of neutron stars and the energy they send beaming across the cosmos.
Investigate the physics of gravitational waves, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein and long thought to be undetectable. It took one of the most violent events in the universe—colliding black holes—to generate gravitational waves that could be picked up by an experiment called LIGO on Earth, a billion light years away. This remarkable achievement won LIGO scientists the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Take in our entire galaxy, called the Milky Way. Locate Earth’s position; then survey other galaxies, classifying their structure. Use the virial theorem to analyze a typical galaxy, which can be thought of as a “collisionless gas” of stars. Note that galaxies themselves often collide with each other, as the nearby Andromeda Galaxy is destined to do with the Milky Way billions of years from now.
Begin with active galaxies that have supermassive black holes gobbling up nearby stars. Then consider clusters of galaxies and the clues they give for missing mass—dubbed “dark matter.” Chart the distribution of dark matter around galaxies and speculate what it might be. Close with the Big Bang, deduced from evidence that most galaxies are speeding away from us; the farther away, the faster.
The Big Bang theory is one pillar of modern cosmology. Another is the cosmic microwave background radiation, which is the faint “echo” of the Big Bang, permeating all of space and discovered in 1965. The third pillar is the cosmic abundances of the lightest elements, which tell the story of the earliest moment of nucleosynthesis taking place in the first few minutes of the Big Bang.
In this last lecture, follow the trail of the greatest unsolved problem in astrophysics. Along the way, get a grip on the past, present, and future of the universe. Discovered in the 1990s, the problem is “dark energy,” which is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. Trace this mysterious force to the lambda term in the celebrated Friedmann equation, proposed in the 1920s.