November 9, 2019 44

Introduction to Astronomy

Introduction to Astronomy

Hey it’s Professor Dave, I wanna tell you
about the universe. Of all the things that make us human, it is
perhaps our quest for knowledge that defines us best. We never seem to be satisfied with the unknown,
always searching, always trying to make sense of our surroundings and our place amongst them. One thing that has instilled wonder in us
since the dawn of mankind has been the simple act of looking up at the night sky. Today we know quite a lot about stars and
planets and galaxies, and yet the sight remains awe-inspiring. But imagine looking up at the night sky thousands
of years ago, having no idea what any of these objects could be. What are these distant points of light? What is the universe as a whole, and just
how big is it? Is it truly infinite? Where did everything come from, including us? These are the grandest questions that humans
can dare to ask, and from this perplexity, gnawing at us every time the sun would set,
was born arguably the first science, astronomy. As we know from ancient texts, early astronomy
dates at least as far back as the first known civilization, Mesopotamia, and probably much
further still. These were times when there was no distinction
between science and mysticism. For this reason, our initial attempts at answering
those big questions about the universe comprise nothing more than elaborate mythologies. Campfire stories of creation, and other fiction. We saw in the night sky a drama unfolding,
much like the one that takes place each day on earth, and we projected images of earthly
figures onto the stars. While much of this activity was nothing but
the hubris of man on the grandest scale, it did mark what was probably the first large-scale
gathering of empirical data. We came to know the night sky intimately. Every glistening star, every luminous object. We charted their movements, and slowly became
able to predict their locations with great precision, thus deciphering the earth’s
seasons and other natural phenomena. While it would be many centuries before we
came to understand what these celestial objects truly are, our journey of scientific discovery
was spawned of this nighttime wonder. Naturally, astronomy has matured over the
centuries, more recently birthing the fields of astrophysics and cosmology, which all come
together to represent our detailed study of the universe. Considering where we are at present, in the
21st century, we have learned so much about the universe that we have begun to answer
even those most fundamental questions about existence. We now have a very firm understanding of how
old the universe is, and we even know a lot about how it must have begun. To the non-scientist, this claim seems absurd. How can we know such things? How can we be so arrogant as to even attempt
to know them? And yet, we have tremendous amounts of data
to support our current model of the universe, actual empirical evidence for what we profess to know. And once you learn about astronomy, the basis
for this knowledge can become quite clear, even to the layperson with no scientific training. In this series, we will begin by attempting
to describe the basic components of the universe in roughly the chronological order in which
they formed. That means energy and the most basic constituents
of matter first, then stars and galaxies, then the planets that came to orbit those
stars, and eventually getting to more exotic objects and concepts. Once we have covered the basics, producing
a comprehensive view of the history of the universe, we will then be ready to get into
some trickier specifics. As we will periodically dip into theoretical
physics, astrophysics, and cosmology throughout these tutorials, we will sometimes examine
concepts that are extremely complicated, but we will do our best to approach these topics
in a balanced way. This means we won’t go over all of the math,
as it’s just too much, but sometimes we will assume some rudimentary mathematical
knowledge, so it may be useful to check out some of my algebra and trigonometry tutorials
if you need a refresher. We will also use many of the ideas we discussed
in the classical physics and modern physics series, so if you want to maximize your comprehension
of these tutorials, those will also be important prerequisites. But if you just want to have some fun and
learn a few things about space, don’t worry, you can move forward now, and if something
we are discussing seems confusing, you can always click on the cards that appear in the
corner of the screen for more background information. Whatever your reason for watching this series,
once you’re through, you will have a solid conceptual understanding of the universe and
everything in it, or as much as is available to mankind at the present. As for the questions that remain, maybe you
can help answer some of them, and become part of the story we continue to tell about the
dark expanse above us, the abyss of possibilities that holds the future of mankind in its swirling glow. But enough with the poetry, let’s learn
some astronomy!

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