Astronomy

Winter Study

Course Descriptions

ASTR 10: Applied Aerodynamics

(not offered WSP 2011)
Instructor: SOUZA

The myth of Icarus illustrates the powerful attraction of flight. Some of us love the very notion of moving through the air with three full spatial degrees of freedom. While many of us do this routinely inside large aluminum tubes, personally flying an aircraft adds another dimension of excitement. Though we will not be flying full-size airplanes, we can do a great deal with miniature aircraft in an indoor setting. The course will be conducted in semi-tutorial fashion, with student presentations, construction sessions, flying sessions, and a few traditional lectures. We will cover the history and physics of heavier-than-air flight (balloons are boring!). No previous experience or coursework is required – students will learn the necessary fundamentals in class. On the practical side, students will start out building and flying simple gliders. Students will then move on to build a remote-controlled aircraft (fixed- or rotary-wing), and learn to fly it. The course will culminate with our own airshow. A 5-page paper on some aspect of the material will be required. Evaluation will be based on completion of projects, student presentations, and the paper.

Prerequisite: none, other than enthusiasm for flight and willingness to learn some basic physics
Enrollment:  limited to 6
Course meeting time: 3 mornings per week, plus extra construction and flying sessions
Cost: approximately $250 for materials

ASTR 11T: Exoplanets: Detection and Details

(not offered WSP 2011)
Instructor: KWITTER

The first planets orbiting stars other than our sun were discovered more than a decade ago via a breakthrough technique and painstaking analysis. We now know of more than 220 exoplanets, though none you would enjoy vacationing on. But the hope is that with refinements in methods of exoplanet detection, including proposed space-borne missions like NASA’s SIM PlanetQuest, the European Spaces Agency’s GAIA, we might actually detect another Earth in the next decade or two. In this writing-intensive tutorial, students will investigate the principles involved in current and future exoplanet implications they carry for the development of life. Readings will include journal articles and meeting proceedings, some textbook material and web research. Tutorial assignments will include quantitative examination of relevant examples.

Pairs of students will meet twice each week giving alternating presentations, for a total of eight tutorial sessions. It is estimated that research, reading and writing will take students approximately 20 hours each week.

Evaluation will be based on tutorial presentations, responses and papers (with a total of 15-20 pages of writing).

Prerequisite: Mathematics 105 or 106, Physics 141 or equivalent. Not open to students who have taken Astronomy 102 or 207T.
Enrollment: limited to 6. In the event of oversubscription, preference will be given to students based on a brief statement of interest.
Cost: $25 for photocopies
Meeting time: mornings

ASTR 12: Mars! — A Passion for the Red Planet

Instructor: CHAIKIN  (Sponsored by:  PASACHOFF)

This course, meant for non-majors, will deal with the scientific, historical, and literary aspects of the planet Mars. It will be based on the content of the instructor’s 2008 book, A Passion for Mars: Intrepid Explorers of the Red Planet. Dreamers and space scientists, engineers and biologists, backyard astronomers and artists have devoted their lives – sometimes at the expense of their careers – to the quest for Mars. Over half a century, they have transformed the Red Planet from a projection of our wildest fantasies into an even more amazing real place of spectacular landscapes, beguiling mysteries, and fantastic possibilities – as an abode for life, and even as a second home for humanity. In A Passion for Mars, Andrew Chaikin, who covered Mars exploration as a science journalist and took part in the first Mars probe landing, chronicled this epic quest and the enduring dream of going there. Based on first-person interviews and animated by the author’s own passion, this course will deal with the story of Earthbound humans and their robotic surrogates caught in the irresistable pull of the Red Planet. The humans include astronomer Carl Sagan, fierce champion of the search for life; rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who envisioned human Mars expeditions years before the space age; and science-fiction titan Ray Bradbury, standard-bearer for Mars as human destiny. The course will discuss four decades of photographs and other observations sent back by robotic explorers as well as visionary artwork that renders our Martian future.

Evaluation will be based on one five-page reserach paper, one five-page opinion paper, and attendance.

Prerequisite: none
Enrollment: limited to 10
Cost: approximately $30 for the book

ASTR 37: Pluto and Other Dwarf Planets

(not offered WSP 2011)
Instructor: PASACHOFF

The repercussions of the International Astronomical Union’s reclassification of Pluto from “planet” to “dwarf planet” have not settled down, with worldwide discussions continuing and books being published about the process and the result. In 2008, the outer dwarf planets were named Plutoids, to give Pluto some additional honor; the ones now known are Pluto, Eris, Makemake, and Haumea. Haumea is now undergoing eclipses and transits with its moon Namaka, which should lead to improved understanding of Haumea and its system. We will discuss not only the objects itself and related science (Williams College faculty and students have been studying Pluto’s atmosphere with telescope observations) but also the philosophy of naming and of classification. Why is Europe a continent? Why is India a subcontinent? Classification problems extend into biological naming and into many other systems. And how should names be chosen? The Plutoids include names from Roman, Greek, Easter Island, and Hawaiian mythologies. In this Winter Study course, students will have flexibility to consider aspects of the overall subject that interest them. On a field trip to New York, we will visit the Rose Center for Earth and Space in its architectural wonder of a glass enclosure surrounding its Hayden Sphere, which contains the planetarium. The Rose Center was a first place where Pluto was “demoted,” leading to a front-page article in The New York Times on the subject. We will also visit the Rubin Museum of Art, with its scheduled exhibition Envisioning the Cosmos: from Milky Ocean to Black Hole, to which Prof. Pasachoff is lending books. ["The exhibition spans a diversity of religions, cultures and epochs, examining the ways in which we have interpreted our place in the universe. The first part of the exhibition will display the theocentric cosmologies of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religions, which envision deities as creators, preservers, and primary players in the cosmic construct. The second section will trace how Western medieval anthropocentric cosmology, which envisioned humans at the center of a static universe, was replaced in the Renaissance by a heliocentric universe, which gave rise to the present evolving astrophysical world-view. The exhibition will include manuscripts, books, paintings, and sculptures depicting the various and frequently complex concepts, diagrams, systems, and stories that describe the creation and structure of the universe. In addition to original artworks, the exhibition will feature educational models of the universe. This will allow visitors better understand the cosmological objects presented in the show, but also how modern we view the cosmos in this age of science. There will be a room that allows virtual travel through the universe, using an interactive device produced by the American Museum of Natural History and adapted for the RMA show. There will also be a computer animation of the Buddhist cosmos (Kalacakra)."]

Students will be expected to participate in all activities, to read at least two books about the Pluto/dwarf-planet situation, and to write a 5-page paper and a concluding 10-page paper on a subject of individual choice.

Evaluation will be based on tutorial presentations, responses and papers (with a total of 15-20 pages of writing).

Prerequisite: none
Enrollment: limited to 10. Preference awarded on the basis of a brief email letter, if oversubscribed.
Cost: $100 for the field trip to New York; optional $25 for books.
Meeting time: Monday and Thursday mornings, with the week surrounding January 15 replaced with individual work.