PHSI 170  Sun, Earth, and Universe




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Summer School, 0.15 EFTS, 18 points                

This course progresses in a largely descriptive way through the essentials of our understanding of the Sun-Earth system, and its place in the wider Universe. Lecture topics include ancient, classical, and modern astronomy, stellar evolution, supernovae, black holes, cosmology, and the exploration of the solar system. Special topics will be included, such as: "The size and age of the universe", "The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence",  and "What would be the effect of a large meteor impact on the Earth?" The importance of historical aspects and the progressive development of ideas will be emphasised, with a minimum of mathematics. This course is intended for students who have an interest in a broad education. We aim to facilitate a continuing interest in Astronomy and space exploration.  The course will be offered again in 2014.!

Prerequisites: None
Restrictions: None

Assoc. Prof. Craig J. Rodger - Room 415, Department of Physics (Science III Building).
Comments from Craig. I've had great fun teaching PHSI170 in the last 11 Summer Schools (2002-)! One of the things that has struck me is how fast the 6 weeks of lectures goes. Stuff that I originally wanted to include in the lectures just doesn't get in (the space race, manned space travel, history of rocketry), or maybe gets brief coverage (the nature of planets in our solar system). Some material I've been able to include as "optional" issues by setting them as essay questions. However, I've decided it is more important in the end not to rush things too much, and so far I seem to be doing that more or less right. This is not a course designed to produce professional physicists or astronomers. Instead, I'll try and inform you about some of the neat things in the Universe and give you some background to understand the crazy stuff in the news on exploding stars, black holes and the like. Its a fun course to teach as just about everyone does it because they have some real interest in the material.

Time Commitments.
Four 1 hour lectures per week 
One 1 hour tutorial per week 
One 3 hour laboratory per week 

  • Lectures: In 2013 all lectures were held at 1pm in the Quad 4 Lecture Theatre. A campus map might help. We expect we find out about  the location for 2014 closer to the start date.
  • Labs and Tutorials will be held in the Department of Physics (Science III Building). The topics and planned locations for 2014 are available. More details will be provided at the Preliminary Lecture  (Monday 7 January 2013; 1pm in Quad 4 lecture theatre).

Time Table
Check the official Summer School timetable for information on this paper and others.
For 2014 we will have the following structure:

  • Lectures on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 1pm 
  • Tutorial streams on Wednesdays. We have 3 streams starting at 11am, 3pm, and 4pm (MERCURY, VENUS, and EARTH). For 2014 only MERCURY and VENUS will run.
  • Lab streams on Thursdays. There are two Lab streams, starting at 9am and 3pm (BLUE and GOLD). For 2014 only GOLD will run.

Streaming information will be available at the Preliminary Lecture (Monday 6 January 2014 at1pm in Quad 4). The MASTER LIST will be available on BlackBoard, and I will make announcements throughout the course using that.

There are two essays required in the 2014 Summer School, due in on 16 January and  5 February 2014. The 2014 topics are not yet available, but you could look at the 2013 topics:  2013 Essay Topic listing One and 2013 Essay Topic Listing Two. Both links contain information on the formatting and presentation of the essays. The essays are not strongly based on lecture material, so you can get started from day one. And you should! Please note that in the last couple of years I have had a small number of students who have not followed acceptable academic practice in the preparation of their essays. Cheating is not on. More information is available from the Plagiarism  and the Plagiarism and Examination Conduct webpages of the University of Otago.  Because of some trouble with Plagiarism in previous year's papers (see the definition above), I have developed a form which needs to be submitted with both your essays. I am sorry to be so heavy handed, but in order for your essay to "count" against your grades, the signed and dated cover sheet must accompany the essay. A copy of the form can be downloaded from Blackboard or picked up from the Physics Office.



Discussion Groups

Written Assignments

16 Jan & 5 Feb 2014

Mid-School Test (27 Jan 2014)
 ~1 hour
Final Exam
 2 hours

The final exam consist of 20 multichoice questions, four short answer questions (of which you do TWO) and five brief essay topics (you write ONE).
Copies of previous exams are available from the Physics Office and the Library.  The answers for the multichoice questions in previous Final (end of school) exam papers are available here.


We will be using Seeds and Backman (Foundations of Astronomy, Thomson Brooks/Cole, 12th edition, 2013). This is available from the University Book Shop.  

The Course in 2013
In 2013 we had a much smaller class than usual, with 20 students enrolled. The lecturing was split equally between Assoc. Prof. Craig Rodger and Assoc. Prof. David Hutchinson, with Craig taking the first half and David the second half. A comment from one of the 2013 students:
  "Really good course, really good lecturer. I am not a scientist, but I do have an interest in science; this course was super accessible even without much science in my background."
We are still considering whether to offer the course in the 2014 Summer School.   2013 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2012
In 2012 we had 40 students enrolled, which meant we were more or less "full" in terms of the domestic cap, plus a significant number of extra international students, mostly from the USA.  Craig only lectured the first two weeks, after which Assoc. Prof. David Hutchinson took over and taught the remaining four weeks. Some comments from our students about their favourite aspects of the course:
  "It was very interesting and stimulating."
  "Lectures and most tutorials – talking about interesting and relevant information with peers was really good
We will be running the course in the 2013 Summer School.   2012 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2011
In 2011 we had fewer students in the course than we have had most previous years, due to the capping of the Summer School. There were about 40 students. Some comments from our students about their favourite aspects of the course:
  "Awesome course, very interesting."
The presentation of the lectures was always incredibly entertaining, and motivated you to listen and learn."
We will be running the course in the 2012 Summer School.   2011 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2010
In 2010 we had a few more students than in the last few years, going to the exam with nearly 50 people in the course. Some comments from our students about their favourite aspects of the course:
  "Learning about something I’ve always wanted to learn about."
  "Writing the essays which enabled me to learn more on interesting subjects."
We will be running the course in the 2011 Summer School.   2010 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2009
In 2009 we had about the same number of students as the last few years, going to the exam with about 40 people in the course. One of my personal disappointments was that we didn't get to see sunspots during our lab on the Sun (or during the weeks either side). The Sun was just not cooperating and was so quiet! Some comments from our students on their favourite aspects of the course:
  "How the course ranged from history to astronomy in a very well organised manner and the lecturer kept everything very easy to understand and interesting."
  "The tutorials and labs because in them you are able to actually apply your existing knowledge of the topic and yet at the same time further your knowledge of the topic.  Also in them you can always access help easily if required."
We will be running the course in the 2010 Summer School.   2009 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2008
In 2008 we had about the same number of students as 2007. Everything went well, but because I was going on sabbatical for most of 2008, I didn't collect comments from the students.  
We will be running the course in the 2009 Summer School.   2008 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2007
In 2007 our numbers were slightly down on previous years, with 41 students. Actually we seemed to be full at the start of the course, but it took a while to work out that some students had never showed up, and more time to get a few extras off the waiting list. Once again, we had a big team from Dartmouth College (NH, USA) who came to Otago for the different academic environment - and to escape the winter at home. Some comments from 2007:
    "The lectures are interesting and I like the subject matter."
    "Loved the orbit of the Earth around the sun dance."
    "The best thing about the paper was the
Interesting lecture topics, and not too much maths equations"
We will be running the course in the 2008 Summer School.   2007 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2006
We again ran PHSI170 in the 2006 Summer School, attracting our record number of 51 students. Fourteen students in 2006 were international enrolments, primarily a big team from Dartmouth College (NH, USA)! Some comments from 2006:
    "I feel like I have learnt so much interesting stuff in a short period."
    "Learning about the fascinating facts of the universe."
    "Dr Rodger's enthusiasm about the course content makes me more interested in the subject matter."

  2006 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2005
We ran an updated PHSI170 in the 2005 Summer School, attracting around 49 students. Some comments from 2005:
Very cool interesting course, very much enjoyed so far, keep up the good work!!!"
If more physics classes were like this I might be interested in taking more!  Best teacher I’ve had since I started at Otago."
Awesome course - top 10 at Uni."
   2005 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2004
PHSI170 was taught in the 2004 Summer School, attracting around 45 students. With the feedback from several years of students now, we have modified the tutorials and laboratories, which has been a success. Some comments from 2004:
The lecturer provided a stimulating environment with lots of enthusiasm."
The best paper in 6 years of study. TAKE THIS COURSE".
Good paper.  Loved it."
We are planning on running the course in the 2005 Summer School, obviously after updating the notes to include some of the recent discoveries in Astronomy!   2004 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2003
We ran PHSI170 again in the 2003 Summer School with more students (about 50). This is about the maximum number we plan to have in the course. As before, our students came from a wide variety of academic background. Some comments from 2003:
    "Excellent - This course is going to influence my thinking for a long time."
    "The best aspect of the course was the total lack of any boring maths - just the focus on the cool bits".
    "The lectures were fascinating - I was never bored."
Of course we are really happy with this feedback and hope to keep this up in 2004!   2003 PHSI170 webpage

The Course in 2002
PHSI170 was run for the first time in the 2002 Summer School. We had 40 students from a wide variety of backgrounds. For many of our students, this was their first "Science" paper. Before we started, quite a few of the students were worried that the course might be too difficult (or maybe just too different from what they had done before). Late in the course we ran a course questionnaire, and 71% of the students found that we covered the right amount of material, and that there was a even split between those people who thought it was a little bit too easy and those who thought it was a little bit too tough. Everyone said that PHSI170 had increased their interest in the subject matter, and everyone said they had enjoyed the process (75% gave it a perfect mark!). Some of the comments were:
    "The lectures were well run, informative and entertaining. The material covered was fascinating.  Hard to fault."
    "The best paper I have done in 3 years of Uni"
     "The easy and understandable way in which it was presented"                  2002 PHSI170 webpage
The course was such a success, we decided to run it again.



Galaxies and BIG objects

Our Sun

  • I'm still looking for a good background article on the Sun and solar wind. But how about this primer on Space Weather? 
    (This was produced by the US Space Environment Centre)

  • How will the Sun evolve in the future? Once the Earth becomes uninhabitable, will other planets in our Solar System be options?

Solar System

  • The Solar System Simulator from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. View the planets from any location.

  • The Nine Eight planets: a multimedia tour of the solar system from the Lunar Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona.

Scale sizes or "How big is big?"

Other Cool Stuff

  • Look at the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day.

  • Space Weather Conditions. Is Aurora likely in Dunedin?

  • The Neave Planetarium, view the night sky through your web browser.

  • Space Flight Now, online Space news, Astronomy, space sciences, mission reports and rocket engineering.

  • Astrology "Defense Kit" a scientific sceptics comments on Astrology - as distinct to Astronomy! 
    Andrew Fraknoi, Astronomical Society of the Pacific

  • View looking down on New Zealand from Fourmilab's neat 'Earth Viewer' webpage. Go on, have a play!

  • Want to check if you can see the International Space Station passing overhead from Dunedin? Use this link to Heavens-Above, hosted by the German Space Agency. This link is already set up for Dunedin! Select "10 day predictions for: ISS" to find space station pass times.

  • FINALLY, for any of you looking for information on satellites, rockets, manned space flight, and the like, look at Mark Wade's Encyclopedia Astronautica. Stunning in its detail! But note that this is NOT part of the required reading for the course, just something I find interesting to look at. 



The "Changing Sun" mosaics were created by Greg Slater and Charlie Little of Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Lab (LMSAL).
The solar X-ray images are from the Yohkoh mission of ISAS, Japan. The X-ray telescope was prepared by the Lockheed-Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and the University of Tokyo with the support of NASA and ISAS.


  Maintained by Craig J. Rodger [September 2013]