June 24, 2014

ANU-ASTRO1x Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe

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For my second course on EdX, I took ANU-ASTRO1x Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe from ANU. A nine week introduction to modern astronomy taught through the lens of 9 “mysteries”, or open problems in astronomy research (as opposed to the more traditional syllabus of Duke’s introductory course).

Each week consists of a set of video lectures totaling around an hour, interspersed with multichoice mini-tests. These mini-tests are part of the assessment, but are very easy and can be attempted as many times as desired (guaranteeing a perfect score). There is also a weekly test containing both multichoice and mathematical questions. While mathmatical confidence is required, the maths used in both lectures and tests is not particularly advanced, and never gets beyond the high-school level. For comparison, it is easier than the Duke course. The course is taught by Paul Francis and Nobel Prize winner (for work on the accelerating universe) Brian Schmidt. Both are good speakers in a well-produced series, using a format of almost conversational back-and-forth lectures with pictures and notes appearing projected behind them.

The final exam is based upon a “mystery universe”. Each week a bit more is revealed about an alternative universe with slightly different physical properties compared to our own. Students can ask for specific data (as if they were well connected astronomers in this other universe) and it may be provided in the information presented the subsequent week. This is a brilliant teaching idea, but I can only imagine the work that must have been required to create it. There was lively discussion in the forums each week on how the universe worked, even I had a quick go at analysing some of the data. Apart from the interest and intrigue generated by trying to solve a puzzle, the major benefit of this is that the maths couldn’t be double-checked by researching currently known information. In the Duke course, with it’s hard problems, I often found myself on Wikipedia checking if my results were approximately realistic. Here I had to rely on myself to check everything made sense.

The course starts with the expanding universe and the big bang, before moving onto dark energy, black holes, quasars, gamma-ray bursts and dark matter. None of which are completely understood. The course ends with a look at solar system formation and the prospect of life outside Earth. Both areas are very active research areas as old theories buckle with new exoplanet discoveries.

This is a very good introductory course in astronomy. I wish I did this course before the Duke course. Furthermore, it is actually the the first course in a series of four (the next on exoplanets is starting today). So I’m looking forward to learning more.

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