Science and the Stars: A short history of astrophysics


This course combines popular science with historical biographies of famous astronomers and physicists like Galileo, Halley, Newton and Hubble. Come along to learn about the people who unravelled the secrets of the solar system, and about the discoveries that shape our understanding of the planets and stars.

Clear skies permitting, there will be one practical session with actual telescopes.

Target audience:
This course will appeal to anyone who enjoys astronomy, physics, science and history. You do not need to know any mathematics to follow the lectures!

Learning objectives:
By the end of this course you will:

  • Know something about the lives and work of several leading astronomers and physicists, including Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Halley, Newton, Bode, Herschel, Verrier, Einstein, Eddington, Lowell, Hubble, and Kuiper. 
  • Know in a non-mathematical way some key scientific ideas related to the planets and stars.
  • Understand the history of key astronomical discoveries.
  • Gain first-hand experience using three types of telescope

Course outline:
Each session includes two one-hour lecture presentations and time for questions and discussion. Clear skies permitting, one of the sessions will provide a practical introduction to using a telescope.

Session 1 (Alexander Maxwell):

  • The Stars: From ancient astronomy to Galileo and his telescope.
  • The Sun: Planetary Motions from Epicycles to Kepler’s Laws

Session 2 (Alexander Maxwell):

  • Comets: Halley and the achievement of Newton
  • Uranus, Ceres, and Neptune: Breaking Bode’s Law

Session 3 (Jim McAloon):

  • Practical Session: Introduction to telescopes
  • The Southern Skies

Session 4 (Alexander Maxwell):

  • The planet that wasn’t: Vulcan and Einstein
  • Pluto and Beyond: Lowell, Kupier and Hubble

There is a short break halfway through each session, and you are welcome to bring your own refreshments if you wish.

Alexander Maxwell is a Senior Lecturer in history for the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University. Alexander did a bachelor’s degree in physics before becoming a historian. He regularly teaches courses for Continuing Education on a wide variety of topics.

Jim McAloon is an Associate Professor of history for the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University and is an avid amateur astronomer.

Relevant links:
School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations
Carter Observatory

For further information:
Continuing Education, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140.
Phone 04 463 6556,  Email:

Please note: Courses need a minimum number of enrolments to go ahead. If your course doesn’t reach the number required, we’ll have to cancel it. If this happens, we’ll contact you by phone or email about a week before the scheduled start date and arrange a full refund. Please check your emails regularly.