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Our Night Sky

Our Night Sky

Professor Edward M. Murphy Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Course No.  1846
Course No.  1846
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  32 minutes per lecture

For thousands of years, the star-filled sky has been a source of wonder, discovery, entertainment, and instruction. Ancient people from nearly every continent and culture wove exciting stories about the mythological figures they saw in the heavens. People also used the sun, moon, and stars for time-keeping and navigation. And careful observers throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere kept precise astronomical records, eventually paving the way for the Scientific Revolution and its remarkable discoveries about the nature of the universe.

Even today, watching the sky has not lost its fascination. Equipped only with a pair of eyes or, at most, binoculars and a small telescope, you can behold marvels such as these:

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For thousands of years, the star-filled sky has been a source of wonder, discovery, entertainment, and instruction. Ancient people from nearly every continent and culture wove exciting stories about the mythological figures they saw in the heavens. People also used the sun, moon, and stars for time-keeping and navigation. And careful observers throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere kept precise astronomical records, eventually paving the way for the Scientific Revolution and its remarkable discoveries about the nature of the universe.

Even today, watching the sky has not lost its fascination. Equipped only with a pair of eyes or, at most, binoculars and a small telescope, you can behold marvels such as these:

  • The jewel-like star cluster called the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus, easily visible with the naked eye and even more magnificent through a pair of binoculars
  • The broad band of the Milky Way arching across the summer sky; the band is the plane of our galaxy seen edge-on from the inside
  • The Perseid meteor shower, a celestial display that peaks in mid-August of every year when Earth passes through debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle
  • The cratered face of the moon, stark evidence of the violent era after the birth of the solar system—a record almost completely erased from Earth due to weathering
  • The four Galilean moons of Jupiter, named after Galileo, whose discovery of them in 1610 helped overthrow the geocentric model of the universe
  • A total solar eclipse, an awe-inspiring spectacle that occurs somewhere on Earth roughly every 18 months and is well worth traveling thousands of miles to see

Best of all, the endlessly interesting sky is just overhead wherever you are. All you need to feel at home in its limitless expanse is Our Night Sky, a richly illustrated 12-lecture course that gives you an unrivaled tour around the sky while teaching you about the science, culture, technology, and pure pleasure of stargazing. Our Night Sky focuses on the view from the Northern Hemisphere, reflecting the origins of the most familiar constellations in this region. However, the final lecture completes your tour by covering the most notable sights in the Southern Hemisphere.

View the Riches of the Universe from Your Own Backyard

From asteroids to the zodiac, from the Big Dipper to variable stars, Our Night Sky is designed to provide a comprehensive overview of what there is to see and the best way to see it, whether you live in the city or the country, whether you are a novice observer or an old hand at astronomy who needs a refresher on constellation and star names, locations, lore, and what to expect from season to season as the heavens present a gloriously changing panorama.

Under the guidance of award-winning astronomer and Professor Edward M. Murphy of the University of Virginia, you will learn

  • how to use a planisphere (star finder) or other star map to quickly orient yourself to the sky for any given date and time, and how to use these aids to find your way among the constellations;
  • how to read celestial coordinates to locate objects precisely, and how to find the north or south celestial poles, the celestial equator, the ecliptic (the sun's apparent path during a year), the vernal equinox, and other important landmarks;
  • how to appreciate the deep cultural roots of astronomy, which lie in humankind's universal quest to understand the heavens through vivid stories that have never lost their power and charm;
  • how to enhance your observing experience by selecting the right equipment from a bewildering array of choices in binoculars, telescopes, eyepieces, mounts, and other hardware; and
  • how to decipher the science behind planets, stars, and galaxies by learning the fundamentals of solar system structure, star types, stellar life cycles, galaxy classification, and other information that will enrich your observing.

Above all, you will better appreciate how our view from Earth reflects a hidden order—a structure that was discovered by sky observers long ago, who drew on centuries of observations to put together the picture we now learn from textbooks. As you watch the sky appear to rotate around the celestial pole over the course of a night, you will almost feel Earth turning beneath you, as it in fact does. As you look at a phase of the moon, you will automatically envision the relative positions of the sun, moon, and Earth that produce this view. As you observe the constellations slowly shift as you go out at the same time every night, you will know that you are seeing the effect of Earth's revolution around the sun.

In short, you will gain a truly cosmic perspective on our world. Equipped with this outlook, and with the extensive science, history, mythology, observing tips, and other background provided by Professor Murphy, you will be ready to step outside, look up, and become a space traveler from your own backyard.

The Night Sky Planisphere is Included with This Course! Along with this course you will receive the same Night Sky Planisphere Star Chart used by Professor Murphy throughout his lectures. This sturdy, easy-to-use star finder is an invaluable aid for locating major constellations and stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. The Planisphere is included with DVD purchases only.

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    The Constellations and Their Stars
    Begin your study of the night sky by investigating the origin of the constellations—the traditional groupings of stars that mostly date to antiquity. The well-known constellation Orion illustrates the fascinating mix of beauty, mythology, and scientific knowledge to be found wherever you look in the heavens. x
  • 2
    Seeing and Navigating the Sky
    The naked eye is a powerful instrument—if you know how to use it. Learn the best times and conditions for observing, how to identify the positions and magnitudes of stars and planets, how the sky changes over the course of a night, how to use astronomical maps such as a planisphere, and more. x
  • 3
    Using Binoculars and Backyard Telescopes
    There are many choices when selecting binoculars or a telescope. Learn what to look for in light-gathering power, optical design, magnification, mounts, and other features. Professor Murphy also suggests several tips for getting the best observing experience out of your equipment. x
  • 4
    Observing the Moon and the Sun
    Charting the motions and changes of the sun and moon may be humankind's oldest astronomical activity. Discover how both objects offer rich opportunities for study. Also learn the precautions to take when observing the sun, which is the only star that can be seen up close and in detail. x
  • 5
    Observing the Planets with a Telescope
    The rings of Saturn, the bands of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the polar caps of Mars—these and other planetary features are visible through a small telescope. Learn when viewing opportunities arise for each of the planets and what sights await the dedicated observer. x
  • 6
    Meteor Showers, Comets, Eclipses, and More
    Explore a variety of special phenomena that are among the wonders of the sky. Some, like bright meteors, aurora, and many comets, are largely unpredictable. Others, like eclipses and annual meteor showers, occur at well-known times—although it may require a special trip to see them. x
  • 7
    The Northern Sky and the North Celestial Pole
    Embarking on the second half of the course in which you systematically tour the entire sky, study two constellations that are continuously in view from the Northern Hemisphere: Ursa Major and Cassiopeia. Also explore the slowly shifting position of true north in the sky. x
  • 8
    The Fall Sky
    Navigate your way around the autumn sky from the Northern Hemisphere, discovering how the classical myth of Andromeda ties together the stories of the nearby constellations of Cassiopeia, Perseus, Cepheus, Pegasus, and Cetus. The sights include the Andromeda galaxy, the nearest large galaxy to our own. x
  • 9
    The Winter Sky
    Continuing your focus on the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere, survey the magnificent winter sky, dominated by Orion. "Star hop" around the region, which includes a wealth of interesting stars, globular clusters, nebulae, and other features, especially the Orion Nebula—the finest nebula in the northern sky—and the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus. x
  • 10
    The Spring Sky
    The spring sky opens the view into intergalactic space perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way. Among the objects visible are the immensely rich galaxy clusters in Virgo and Coma Berenices, which are many millions of light-years distant and can be seen with small and moderate telescopes. x
  • 11
    The Summer Sky
    Arching high overhead in the summer sky is the Milky Way, which is the plane of our galaxy seen from the inside. Tour this densely packed region of stars of all types, from dusty regions of star birth to the exquisite shells of dying stars. Here, a useful orienting feature is the Summer Triangle. x
  • 12
    The Southern Sky and the Milky Way
    In this final lecture, travel to the Southern Hemisphere for sky views inaccessible from northern latitudes. Discover the famous Southern Cross, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and a spectacular panorama of the Milky Way—along with new myths and stories that add a human dimension to our marvelous night sky. x

Lecture Titles

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Edward M. Murphy
Ph.D. Edward M. Murphy
University of Virginia
Dr. Edward M. Murphy is Associate Professor, General Faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He earned his bachelor's degree in Astronomy from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Virginia in 1996. Professor Murphy was a postdoctoral fellow and an associate research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he worked on NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE). In 2000 he joined the faculty at the University of Virginia, where he continues to use FUSE, along with radio telescopes, in his research on the interstellar medium. Professor Murphy teaches courses on introductory astronomy and intelligent life in the universe to undergraduates, as well as seminars on how to teach astronomy to graduate students. He also offers evening classes for the local community at the historical Leander McCormick Observatory. He was named a Teaching and Technology Fellow in 2002-2003 and an Ernest Boots Mead Honored Faculty Fellow in 2003-2004. Dr. Murphy gives astronomy talks, appears regularly on local radio, and leads professional development workshops for teachers. He has also worked with the Science Museum of Virginia to develop planetarium shows and exhibits.
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Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 43 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Informative but not what I was looking for I expected to learn more about individual objects in the night sky, like planets, nebulae and star clusters and how to find them. Instead, I learned a lot about constellations and their history and the myths about them. It was informative, just not what I wanted to learn. November 6, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good course, but depends on where you live. There are many reviews testifying to the value of this course, so I am not going to reiterate what others have already written. This is a good course. I have recently retired, joined an astronomical association and purchased my own telescope. “Our Night Sky” is indeed helping me to learn what is in the night sky. Prof. Murphy does talk fairly quickly, but he is trying to cover a lot of material. Whether watching by video streaming or by DVD, it is easy enough to pause and replay something if you want. So why did I not give it five stars? Prof. Murphy planned this course for people who live in central or northern United States. The Planisphere Star Chart provided is for Latitudes 30 to 40 degrees North. When explaining how to navigate the sky to find stars and other deep sky objects, he repeatedly states that the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia never go below the horizon. I live in San Antonio, Texas at Latitude 29.44 degrees north. From late September to late December, the Big Dipper is below the horizon. Mid May to mid June, Cassiopeia is below the horizon. Actually, they are not visible for even longer because most areas do not have a view of zero degree horizon because of terrain features - hills, trees, buildings, etc. Luckily, I already have a Planisphere for Latitudes 20 to 30 degrees North. While I viewed the lessons on my desktop computer, I also had Starry Night astronomy program running on my laptop. This made it easier to follow some of the presentations and navigation instructions. I do recommend this course for anyone just starting to learn astronomy. Just be aware that if you live below 30 degrees Latitude, you will need your own Planisphere and navigation to find stars will be different. August 27, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Hurried, but Helpful Introduction Viewed as an introductory course to astronomy, Our Night Sky met my expectations. While short at only twelve lectures, the course content sets the standard for future, more complex astronomy lessons featured in other Great Courses lectures. The first half of the course dedicates itself to teaching many of the basic rules and understandings for viewing the night sky. Equipment, time of year, and specific ideal viewing nights are covered. Much of the material in the second half provides insight not only into the astronomical significance of the material, but also the historical implications. While discussing the many constellations visible in our sky during different times of the year, Professor Murphy also examines the mythology of these constellations. This diversity in the discussion keeps the course from becoming stale. Professor Murphy's presentation can feel rushed at times, due to the short run time of the course. While he does cover the material, sometimes in great detail, the speed at which he speaks may cause some confusion in fully understanding and really comprehending what he is saying. I would therefore advise reviewing certain sections of the course that may at times seem to burden you with too much information. While the discussion may feel hurried, it's hard to argue against the fact that it is well structured with flow, pace, and transitional elements that all work. Although this is a course mainly for beginners, Our Night Sky will provide entertainment for astronomy buffs, and can still be enjoyable even if your knowledge of astronomy is beyond Professor Murphy's material. Overall, Our Night Sky provides valuable information for novice astronomers who would like to know more about constellations and how to view them. While Professor Murphy's talking speed could be slower, this course is perfect for beginners. For those who are looking for more advanced topics in astronomy I would recommend Black Holes Explained, or The Inexplicable Universe (albeit not solely an astronomy course), or Experiencing Hubble, from The Great Courses site. July 17, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Our Night Sky Excellent course giving some mythology behind constellations and descriptions on how to locate. The use of included Planisphere is covered as well as introduction to general astronomical features in the sky. Instructor is interesting and animated. Well worth the cost for a basic intoduction to astronomy. July 26, 2013
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