Welcome to Villanova University, and this Web server operated by the Astronomy & Astrophysics department. We have at this site the text and some computer illustrations for the astronomy and physics experiments that form the laboratory accompanying a two-semester science course for non-science students. This site will be of interest to college or high school astronomy and/or physics instructors, as well as anyone who would like to explore astronomy using the computer.

This work is supported by:

The Pew Charitable Trusts
Villanova University.

There are new approaches to teaching astronomy and physics in the laboratory setting, involving the use of computers as tools to simulate events and concepts which can be illuminated in no other reasonable way. With the computer, it is possible to travel back in time to replicate the sky as Galileo saw it. Astronomical phenomena which reveal themselves only after centuries of real time may be compressed in the computer to a simulation of several minutes. Observations simulated on the computer do not suffer from the vagaries of weather, fixed time or geographic position, or non-repeatability. In physics, the computer allows us to secure data for experiments which, by their nature, may not be amenable to human interaction. These could include experiments with very fast or very slow timescales, large number of data samples, complex or tedious manipulation of the data which hides the fundamental nature of the experiment, or data sampling which would need a specialized probe, such as for acid rain or atmospheric CO2.

This innovation has become possible only recently, due to the availability and affordability of sophisticated computer hardware and software. We have developed a laboratory experience for non-scientists who need an introductory course in astronomy/physics. Our approach makes extensive use of computers in this laboratory. Using commercially available software, such as Starry Night , the students use the computer as a time machine and a space craft to explore and rediscover fundamental science. Other simulation software is available, such as:

Dance of the Planets
Distant Suns
Expert Astronomer

This Web page will be of interest to instructors of college students or advanced high school students in astronomy or physics. In addition, anyone who may be interested in commercially available astronomy software may see how it can be used. There is also a companion Astronomy Resource Page with links and software.

The astronomy laboratory experiments are computer simulations of phenomena, events, and concepts. Freed from the bounds of time, fixed location, or bad weather, the student is permitted to simulate :

  1. important historical events in astronomy -
    • the morning sky that began the Chinese year zero March 1953 BC
    • the morning sky that greeted the survivors of the Titanic
    • the solar eclipse that helped end the Battle of Nineveh May 585 BC
  2. astronomical events that recur only over long timescales -
    • the length of the synodic and sidereal periods of the Moon and planets, simulating Mars in retrograde motion
    • the length of the year
    • the phenomenon of the Saros
  3. astronomical events that students can simulate, but never physically attend -
  4. astronomical events that allow the students to rediscover fundamental physics -
    • the motions of the planets, leading to Kepler's Harmonic Law
    • the motions of Jupiter's moons, leading to the mass of Jupiter via Newton's modification of Kepler's #3
    • Roemer's determination of the speed of light, using Jupiter and Io

These experiments may be rewritten to match the needs of your particular curriculum. Any one could be expanded into a semester-long project involving actual observations. The computer's simulation of it could then provide data missed due to poor weather or schedule conflicts.

The physics experiments are rather classical in nature, but with two important changes. First, rather than being told the answer, we take advantage of the students' natural curiosity and allow them actively to discover the key relationships in the experiment. For example, in Galileo's free fall experiment, students explore the parameters of distance, time, and mass of the hardware without being told that d = 0.5*g*t^2. Typically, students derive a great deal of satisfaction in this discovery. Second, the computer acts as a data collector and presenter, freeing the student from the tedium of repetitive data gathering and replotting. In this way, the student is encouraged to explore, to try new things, to refine the measurements, and to discover the principles underlying the observed phenomena. The hardware interfaces and the software drivers for them are available from Pasco Scientific, among others.

Look at the synopsis of the astronomy experiments.

Look at the synopsis of the physics experiments.

Although the laboratory is a year-long integrated sequence of astronomy and physics experiments, it could be easily divided into separate astronomy or physics laboratories, each one semester.

Last modification of any significance - September 1, 1999.

Other places to browse:
Villanova University
Villanova University Astronomy & Astrophysics
Villanova University Astronomy Resource Page
Gregor Mendel, O.S.A.

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Frank P. Maloney : A Picture != a thousand words <>
David Steelman, programmer extraordinaire StudyWeb Almost no Astronomers were harmed in the testing of this award-winning site.