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Astronomy 2143 - Cosmology: The History of the Universe

Why is there something, rather than nothing?
What was the Big Bang?
How fast is the universe expanding?
How will the universe end?

Astronomy 1143, The History of the Universe, is a one-semester on the history of the universe as we currently understand it and about the history of cosmology as a subject. It is a General Education (GE) Physical Science course in the Natural Science category. The goals of courses in this category are for students to understand the principles, theories, and methods of modern science, the relationship between science and technology, the implications of scientific discoveries, and the potential of science and technology to address problems of the contemporary world.

Why is there something, rather than nothing? This is one of the oldest questions in human thought, and astronomers and physicists have made extraordinary progress towards answering it over the last century. We now know that the universe we see today has expanded from an extremely hot, extremely dense state - the ``Big Bang'' - that existed about 14 billion years ago. We know that the rich structure in today's universe - billions of galaxies that are arranged in enormous filaments and sheets and filled with stars and planets - emerged from the action of gravity on tiny primordial fluctuations. We know that the matter that makes up our everyday world, comprised of protons, neutrons, and electrons, accounts for only about 5% of the total matter and energy in the universe. We know something about the other dominant components, known as dark matter and dark energy, but their true nature remains mysterious, and a subject of intense research by astronomers and physicists.

This course will teach you about the history of the universe as we currently understand it and about the history of cosmology as a subject. We will see how astronomers have used observations from telescopes and satellites together with basic physical principles to piece together the picture summarized above. We will learn about some of the research that is being done today to gain a deeper understanding of the matter and energy contents of the cosmos, the physics of the Big Bang, and the origin of galaxies. Along the way, we will learn about light and its role as a messenger from the distant universe, about gravity and its impact on the motions of galaxies and the expansion of the cosmos, and about atoms and how they are forged in the hot early universe and the centers of stars.

Course Objectives

By the end of this course, students should successfully be able to:

  • Understand the basic facts, principles, theories, and methods of modern science.
  • Understand key events in the development of science and recognize that science is an evolving body of knowledge.
  • Describe the interdependence of scientific and technological developments.
  • Recognize the social and philosophical implications of scientific discoveries and understand the potential of science and technology to address problems of the contemporary world. 

Astronomy 1143 will meet these expected outcomes by covering these topics:

  • Measuring distances and velocities; properties of light; expansion of the universe
  • Gravity; the influence of gravity on cosmic expansion; evidence for dark matter
  • The Big Bang theory; the geometry of space
  • The cosmic microwave background
  • The origin of atoms: nucleosynthesis in stars and the early universe
  • Galaxies, dark matter, and the large-scale structure of the universe
  • Inflation and the pre-history of the Big Bang
  • Exotic energy and the fate of the universe

This course attempts to convey a number of the facts that astronomers and astrophysicists have learned about these topics, to describe the outstanding scientific problems that are the focus of current research, to illustrate ways in which physical principles are used to understand the universe, and to show how scientific theories are developed and tested against observations.

Course Organization

This is a 3 credit hour course; each week, there will be 3 hours of lecture with occasional take-home assignments designed to explore topics in greater detail. For Arts and Sciences students in a Bachelor of Arts program, this course meets the Arts and Sciences GE requirement of a natural sciences course without a laboratory component.

Course Catalog Description

Description of the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present; how observations led to the discovery of this history.

Prerequisites: Not open to students with credit for 2292 (292) or 1162 (162) or 143 or 172.

This course is available for EM credit. GEL Natural Science: Physical Science course. NS Admis Cond course.