Thursday 27 February 2014

Analyzing The Universe – Course Review

When a new supernova, SN2014J, ignited in a spectacular display near the galaxy M82 in January 2014, Rutgers University was already in the process of delivering a fascinating free online course – Analyzing The Universe. I was taking this course, and enjoyed it very much. I found the course stimulating, interesting and very informative, so I'd like to tell you a little about it.

The 6-week course is available, free to students, via the excellent organisation Coursera, and is delivered by Dr. Terry Matilsky of Rutgers University. If you haven't already come across Coursera, I thoroughly recommend that you take a look at their offerings.

About the course, from the Coursera website: “Using publicly available data from NASA of actual satellite observations of astronomical x-ray sources, we explore some of the mysteries of the cosmos, including neutron stars, black holes, quasars and supernovae.”

Having read the detailed course introduction, I had little idea what to expect from the course. They say there are no pre-requisites other than high school algebra and geometry, but a course that starts by assuming no knowledge would struggle to analyse the universe in 6 weeks of video lectures. Also I wasn't sure what kind of time commitment it would take. They say 5-7 hours a week, but is this really so? What kind of interesting new stuff would I learn? And if I'm interested in astronomy, why particularly a course on x-ray astronomy?

Professor Matilsky has said that this course will be scheduled again in the future, so in case you're wondering whether to sign up, here are my impressions:

According to the course details: “There are no pre-requisites for this course – other than high school mathematics (algebra and geometry).”

This is true, but don't be fooled. You really need those skills if you want to get anywhere with the quizzes, and the ability to do algebra and geometry is not enough. You need to apply deep, analytical thought. Professor Matilsky does not hand it to you on a plate, even if it looks as though he does in the video lectures. Having said that, the course discussion forums are a great place for interaction with the other students, and Professor Matilsky, together with the other fine staff of the Rutgers course, are active on the forums, answering student questions and helping where needed.

Tools: The course heavily uses an excellent free tool called DS9 from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. To use this you'll need Linux, Windows or Mac, (unless you're willing to use the source code to make it run on something else). If you have a tablet computer, but no access to one of those three operating systems, you'll be able to access the course videos and the course Wiki, but you won't be able to run DS9, which means you won't be able to do all of the quiz questions. I can vouch for the Linux and Windows versions of DS9, but I haven't tried the Mac version.

Do expect to read the course Wiki. It's part of the course, and without it the video lectures are not enough to answer the quiz questions.

Realistically I've taken longer than the estimated 5-7 hours a week. In all I've probably spent nearer 10 hours each week, possibly more, on the video lectures (frequently paused for copious note-taking), the course Wiki and the quizzes.

This is where the rubber meets the road. What will you learn?

I'll give a blow-by-blow account of the course in a subsequent post, but here's a summary:

Each week Professor Matilsky takes us through a some of the pertinent history behind the week's lecture, and explains the physics and maths that will be needed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the course serves three purposes. Firstly he gives us a guided tour to the free tool DS9, which is available to all from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's website. Secondly, using DS9 and some of the observations made by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, he helps us to see how we can investigate what is going on out there in the Universe for ourselves. Thirdly, but not least, he offers an excellent introduction to modern astronomy. That is the part I hadn't anticipated, and it added to my enjoyment of the course immensely.

We look at stellar evolution, and at the different kinds of supernovae, and the mechanisms behind them. We look at Cepheid variables, neutron stars and pulsars, quasars, galaxy clusters and black holes.

Most importantly we look at the data for ourselves, and we see how the data shows us what's going on out there. We see just how much we can learn about the Universe from publicly available x-ray data, using a freely available tool.


I sincerely hope this course will be, as Professor Matilsky has indicated, available again in the future, and that you are able to take it yourself. This offering is a high quality educational course offered by a leading university, and delivered to you free of charge. The standard of education and of course production is as high as you could wish, and Prof Matilsky's inimitable presentation style is both is interesting and entertaining.

If you are interested in astronomy, but wonder whether a course on x-ray astronomy might be a little too specialised, worry no more. This course uses x-ray observation data to illustrate many fascinating aspects of modern astronomy, and this course, quite the opposite from being too specialised, offers a heck of an introduction to astronomy.

Professor Matilsky shows us how, armed with an understanding of some basic physics, and with the application of some high school mathematics, anyone can download DS9 and draw some pretty amazing and extremely interesting conclusions about some of the celestial objects for which the Chandra x-ray observatory has collected data.

Thank you Professor Matilsky, the staff of Rutgers University and the organisers of Coursera for this excellent offering. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject.

 I took this course from 28th January to 25th February 2014


  1. It is so exciting to see your name come up on my list!!!

    This sounds like a perfect course for my husband. He has a master in physics, with bachelors in math and chemistry. John is always ready with his telescope. I will forward this info onto him. Thanks!!

    1. Hi, Susan, :-) Thanks for coming by.

      So glad the course sounded interesting - If John decides to take the course next time it comes round I'm sure he'll enjoy it. Like your husband I'm always ready with my telescope, and I love to deepen my understanding of what I'm seeing.