The Life and Death of Stars

Course No. 1872
Professor Keivan G. Stassun, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
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Course Overview

For thousands of years, stars have been the prime example of something unattainable and unknowable—places so far away that we can learn almost nothing about them. Yet amazingly, astronomers have been able to discover exactly what stars are made of, how they are born, how they shine, how they die, and how they play a surprisingly direct role in our lives. Over the past century, this research has truly touched the stars, uncovering the essential nature of the beautiful panoply of twinkling lights that spans the night sky.

Consider these remarkable discoveries about the stars:

  • We are stardust: Every atom heavier than hydrogen and a few other light elements was forged at the heart of a star. The oxygen we breathe, the carbon in every cell of our bodies, and practically all other chemical elements are, in fact, stellar ashes.
  • Light fingerprints: Stars emit light across the entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Spectral lines and other features of starlight act like fingerprints to identify what a star is made of, its temperature, motion, and other properties.
  • Diamonds in the sky: Carbon is the end product of stars that are roughly the size of our sun. When such stars die, they shrink down to an unimaginably dense and inert ball of carbon atoms—a massive diamond in the sky called a white dwarf.
  • Space weather: Stars produce more than light and heat. Their outermost layer emits a steady stream of charged particles that constitutes a stellar wind. This wind can be strong enough to strip an atmosphere off a nearby planet.

No other large-scale object in the universe is as fundamental as a star. Galaxies are made of stars. Planets, asteroids, and comets are leftover debris from star formation. Nebulae are the remnants of dead stars and the seedbed for a new generation of stars. Even black holes, which are bizarre deformations of spacetime with infinite density, are a product of stars, typically created when a high-mass star ends its life in core collapse and a supernova explosion. And, of course, the sun is a star, without which we couldn’t exist.

Long ago, the magnificence of the star-filled sky and its clock-like motions inspired people to invent myths to explain this impressive feature of nature. Now we understand the stars at a much deeper level, not as legendary figures connected with constellations, but as engines of matter, energy, and the raw material of life itself. And thanks to powerful telescopes, our view of the stars is more stunning than ever.

The Life and Death of Stars introduces you to this spectacular story in 24 beautifully illustrated half-hour lectures that lead you through the essential ideas of astrophysics—the science of stars. Your guide is Professor Keivan G. Stassun of Vanderbilt University, an award-winning teacher and noted astrophysicist. Professor Stassun provides lively, eloquent, and authoritative explanations at a level suitable for science novices as well as for those who already know their way around the starry sky.

Understand Astronomy at a Fundamental Level

Stars are a central topic of astronomy, and because the study of stars encompasses key concepts in nuclear physics, electromagnetism, chemistry, and other disciplines, it is an ideal introduction to how we understand the universe at the smallest and largest scales. Indeed, today’s most important mysteries about the origin and fate of the universe are closely connected to the behavior of stars. For example, the accelerating expansion of the universe due to a mysterious dark energy was discovered thanks to a special type of supernova explosion that serves as an accurate distance marker across the universe. And another enigma, dark matter, may have played a crucial role in the formation of the earliest stars.

Using dazzling images from instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope, along with informative graphics and computer animations, The Life and Death of Stars takes you to some otherworldly destinations, including these:

  • Stellar nurseries: Stars form inside vast clouds of interstellar gas and dust, where every phase of stellar growth can often be seen. Take a virtual fly-through of the Orion Nebula, witnessing the dynamism of stellar creation and the immensity of the regions where stars are born.
  • Planetary nebulae: Mislabeled “planetary” because they were originally thought to involve planets, these slowly expanding shells of glowing gas are the last outbursts of dying stars. They vary widely in shape and color and are among the most beautiful of celestial sights.
  • Core of the sun: We can’t see into the sun, but sunquakes and other clues reveal the extreme conditions at its center, 400,000 miles below the visible surface. Make an imaginary trip there, viewing the layers that transfer heat from the 15-million-degree Celsius cauldron at the sun’s core.
  • Protoplanetary systems: Planets form inside disks of gas and dust surrounding young stars. See how newborn planets jockey for position close to their parent stars and how some planets are ejected from the system—a fate that may have befallen planets orbiting our own sun.

Reach for the Stars

Just as fascinating as the places you visit are the observational techniques you learn about. One of Professor Stassun’s research areas is exoplanetary systems—planets orbiting other stars. You investigate the different methods astronomers use to detect inconspicuous, lightless planets lost in the glare of brilliant stars, seen from many light-years away. You also explore the principles of telescopes and light detectors, and you learn about the vast range of the electromagnetic spectrum, the largest part of which is invisible to human eyes—but not to our instruments.

An astronomer’s other tools for understanding stars include the invaluable Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which tells the complete story of stellar evolution in one information-rich graphic. You compare the sun’s position on this chart with the entire range of other star types that have varying masses, temperatures, and colors.

You also become familiar with the periodic table of elements, discovering how fusion reactions inside stars forge successively heavier atoms, producing some in abundance, temporarily skipping others, and creating everything heavier than iron in the cataclysmic blast of a supernova. Nickel, copper, gold, and scores of other elements important to humans thus owe their existence to the most energetically powerful phenomenon in the cosmos. You see, too, how astronomers use computer models to analyze the rapid sequence of events that leads to a supernova.

“Hitch your wagon to a star,” advised Ralph Waldo Emerson. In other words, reach for the stars! The Life and Death of Stars is your guide to this lofty goal.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Why the Stellar Life Cycle Matters
    View the life cycle of a star in its broadest context, seeing how stars serve as agents of alchemy, transforming the simplest element—hydrogen—into the panoply of heavier elements that compose life and all other material objects in the universe. x
  • 2
    The Stars’ Information Messenger
    Discover that there is much more to light than what we can see with our eyes. Investigate the properties of light and the electromagnetic spectrum, which extends from gamma rays to radio waves. Then learn how astronomers read a star’s spectrum to determine the star’s elemental composition. x
  • 3
    Measuring the Stars with Light
    Uncover more information encoded in starlight, learning how color and patterns of emission and absorption reveal the surface temperature of a star and its motion relative to Earth. Examine the scientific laws that explain stellar spectra, and find out how stellar distances are measured. x
  • 4
    Stellar Nurseries
    Probe the places where stars begin their lives: stellar nurseries. Use what you’ve learned about light to interpret the incredible colors and sculpted shapes in glowing clouds of gas and dust. See how star death leads to a new generation of stars. Close with a virtual fly-through of the stellar nursery in the Orion Nebula. x
  • 5
    Gravitational Collapse and Protostars
    Chart the stages of star birth in stunning astronomical images. From Bok globules and Herbig-Haro objects to protoplanetary disks, these phases develop as gravity brings together material within denser regions of a stellar nursery. Clumps of matter eventually collapse into stars, which often include surrounding planetary systems. x
  • 6
    The Dynamics of Star Formation
    Hundreds of stars can form inside a single cloud of collapsing gas and dust. Zoom in on the intricate details of this process. First, watch a computer simulation of star formation. Then, see how double, triple, and other gravitationally bound combinations of stars arise. x
  • 7
    Solar Systems in the Making
    Follow the formation of newborn planets as they jockey for position close to their parent stars. Computer simulations show how some planets can be ejected out of their solar systems. Such models suggest that our sun and its planetary system might have looked markedly different in the past than it does now. x
  • 8
    Telescopes—Our Eyes on the Stars
    Focus on the instruments that observe and measure stars: telescopes. Investigate the major types and the detectors they use to extract the maximum amount of information from starlight. Telescopes on Earth and in space can survey the entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum. x
  • 9
    Mass—The DNA of Stars
    Learn how mass is like a star’s DNA, as it determines all of a star’s physical characteristics. Astronomers can measure a star’s mass by observing another star in orbit around it. Explore the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which shows that stars of different masses fall into well-defined classes. x
  • 10
    Eclipses of Stars—Truth in the Shadows
    Investigate the remarkable usefulness of eclipses. When our moon passes in front of a star or one star eclipses another, astronomers can gather a treasure trove of data, such as stellar diameters. Eclipses also allow astronomers to identify planets orbiting other stars. x
  • 11
    Stellar Families
    Survey the two major types of star clusters. Open clusters typically form within the disk of a galaxy and represent recent generations of stars, enriched in heavier elements. By contrast, globular clusters form a halo around the centers of galaxies and are some of the most ancient stars in the universe. x
  • 12
    A Portrait of Our Star, the Sun
    Explore the nearest star, the sun, in an imaginary voyage through its fiery photosphere down to the center. Discover the sun’s rich inner structure, with strata ranging from the extremely hot and dense core—denser than solid lead—to the more rarefied outer layers. x
  • 13
    E = mc2—Energy for a Star’s Life
    Probe the physics of nuclear fusion, which is the process that powers stars by turning mass into energy, according to Einstein’s famous equation. Then examine two lines of evidence that show what’s happening inside the sun, proving that nuclear reactions must indeed be taking place. x
  • 14
    Stars in Middle Age
    Delve deeper into the lessons of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, introduced in Lecture 9. One of its most important features is the main sequence curve, along which most stars are found for most of their lives. Focus on the nuclear reactions occurring inside stars during this stable period. x
  • 15
    Stellar Death
    Stars like the sun end as white dwarfs, surrounded by an envelope of expelled material called a planetary nebula. Explore the complicated and beautiful structure of these dying outbursts. Then investigate the spectacular end of the most massive stars, which explode as supernovae, forging the elements of life in their violent demise. x
  • 16
    Stellar Corpses—Diamonds in the Sky
    Analyze three major types of stellar remains. Low mass stars like the sun leave behind white dwarfs, composed of carbon in a compact diamond-like state. Heavier stars collapse into super-dense neutron stars. And stars weighing more than 20 solar masses end as bizarre black holes. x
  • 17
    Dying Breaths—Cepheids and Supernovae
    Stars vary in brightness during their final phases. Study two phenomena that allow astronomers to measure distances with great accuracy across vast reaches of space: Cepheid variable stars and white dwarf supernovae. Zoom in on the processes that produce these valuable cosmic yardsticks. x
  • 18
    Supernova Remnants and Galactic Geysers
    Explore amazing images of the remnants of supernova explosions, charting how these cosmic catastrophes unfold as if in slow motion. Expanding clouds of supernova debris can trigger new star formation nearby and even carve enormous chimney-like structures in a galaxy. x
  • 19
    Stillborn Stars
    Follow the search for brown dwarfs—objects that are larger than planets but too small to ignite stellar fires. Hear about Professor Stassun’s work that identified the mass of these elusive objects, showing the crucial role of magnetism in setting the basic properties of all stars. x
  • 20
    The Dark Mystery of the First Stars
    Join the hunt for the first stars in the universe, focusing on the nearby “Methuselah” star. Explore evidence that the earliest stars were giants, even by stellar standards. They may even have included mammoth dark stars composed of mysterious dark matter. x
  • 21
    Stars as Magnets
    Because stars spin like dynamos, they generate magnetic fields—a phenomenon that explains many features of stars. See how the slowing rate of rotation of stars like the sun allows astronomers to infer their ages. Also investigate the clock-like magnetic pulses of pulsars, which were originally thought to be signals from extraterrestrials. x
  • 22
    Solar Storms—The Perils of Life with a Star
    The sun and stars produce more than just light and heat. Their periodic blasts of charged particles constitute space weather. Examine this phenomenon—from beautiful aurorae to damaging bursts of high-energy particles that disrupt electronics, the climate, and even life. x
  • 23
    The Stellar Recipe of Life
    Survey the periodic table of elements, focusing on the elements that are vital to life. From carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen to phosphorous, copper, and zinc, virtually every constituent of life was forged in a star during some phase of its life cycle. x
  • 24
    A Tale of Two Stars
    Close your introduction to stellar evolution by contrasting the life cycles of two markedly different stars: one like our sun and another 10 times more massive. Professor Stassun compares their histories to milestones in the lives of humans, bringing a personal dimension to the science of stars. x

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  • 184-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Keivan G. Stassun

About Your Professor

Keivan G. Stassun, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
Dr. Keivan G. Stassun is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He earned his Ph.D. in Astronomy as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was a postdoctoral research fellow with the NASA Hubble Space Telescope Program before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt. Professor Stassun's research on the birth of stars, eclipsing binary stars,...
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Reviews

The Life and Death of Stars is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 46.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent course. I loved this course. I had long had a number of queries concerning the life cycle of stars that I could never find satisfactory answers to, and this course cleared them all up (well, almost!). Professor Stassun has a gentle and calm delivery style which I found appealing, and his love and enthusiasm for the subject is obvious. As an overview of the subject I think one would be hard pressed to find anything better or more enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Haven't finished it yet. Will send a full review after I finish the course but so far it is great.
Date published: 2018-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sparks interest in course at a glance. This is an excellent course to recommend and use to help students interested in astronomy.
Date published: 2018-09-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from the Best! I have not finished this course yet but I find that it is the best, most informative series of lectures that I have seen through your program. Professor Stasson is an excellent teacher. Thank you!
Date published: 2018-06-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Easy to understand and comprehensive Astronomy Very pleased with this course. I aspired to be an astronomer as a youth so was familiar with many of the concepts but my knowledge was dated and incomplete. This course laid it all out with excellent graphics and easy to understand explanations. One of the most enjoyable Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-06-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Fascinating subject and well taught My one bug bear was how often the camera angel changed. The constant moving from side to side was distracting and got quite annoying. There was no need for such over direction as the professor was engaging and would of been fine behind a desk or a podium. I would of given it 5 stars if this had been the case.
Date published: 2018-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant course! I found this course absolutely fascinating. I have read the course transcript so many times that it is falling apart. The professor has a knack of explaining difficult concepts in a way that anyone can understand, without dumbing down the course. I sincerely hope he writes another one for The Great Courses Company!
Date published: 2018-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I bought this course recently and am about 1/2 way through. I have taken five other Teaching Company astronomy courses including Professor Filippenko's Introduction to Astronomy. Still, I am learning from this course, and would definitely recommend to to others who want a good course about stars. It is a slower paced course which is fine with me. I do not find the repetition tiresome, but actually very helpful. This is a solid course and am happy to be studying it.
Date published: 2017-12-24
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