Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Back to School

The Physics Groupie is taking a small step forward in his formal astrophysics education (one of the reason for fewer posts here on the SLB). I am officially auditing a very cool class at UCLA this Fall 2010 quarter – Astronomy 4 “Black Holes and Cosmic Catastrophes.” The class is taught by Professor Alice Shapley, a rising star of the UCLA astrophysics department who was literally stolen away from Princeton in 2008. I’ve met Alice a number of times before and knew I’d enjoy any class she taught. I have not been disappointed, the class is wonderful, a tribute to her engaging teaching style. With her dry-pan sense of humor, she could be a pretty damn good comedian.

The class is square in my area of interest – black holes, but it is much more than that. Shapley is going through some Newtonian dynamics, Keplerian orbits, spectroscopy, and my favorite – gravity. Although an undergrad course for non-majors, it serves me as a springboard for the future. After a life in computer science, many of you know I switched focus about 5 years ago in favor of astrophysics. I had to start somewhere, so this class is a great place. A goal of mine is to ease back into student mode, and after years in industry it isn’t all that simple. Eventually, I’d like to enter a Masters Degree program in astrophysics or astronomy, and time permitting, a Ph.D. program. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

The class is already providing an excellent framework for revisiting a lot of elementary physics that I haven’t had since I was an undergrad. It is interesting how the hyper-competitive undergrad environment at UCLA looks at this review material. I asked one fellow student (probably only 18 or 19 years old) about the physics being taught in the class. The reply I got was, “Oh, I had all this in high school.” Ah, the precocious youth of today.

Again, this is a course for non-majors, but I’m taking it more seriously than most. Instead of the textbook recommended for the class, I’m using the renowned Halliday & Resnick which is much more intense and mathematical. This textbook is on its 8th edition and originally written by venerable RPI emeritus professor Robert Resnick. I’m also reviewing MIT physics (aka Course 8) material for 8.01 and 8.02 through MIT OpenCourseware to supplement the material being covered in my class.

I’m looking forward to the meat of the class in the weeks to come, namely black holes. With my past experience with the LIGO project and gravitational wave astronomy, plus my more recent interest in the Galactic center with our Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, I’m anticipating a very good learning experience indeed.

[I’d appreciate any comments about returning to the academic world after a long absence. Is this doable?]

1 comment:

  1. I did the same thing, actually at 60 years old. I won my master degree in engineering. I'd be lying if I said it was easy at this age but I managed to do it, so I think you can too. Greg/Boise,ID

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