Online Astronomy Course

I am pleased to announce that I will be teaching an online astronomy course through Castalia House, likely this coming fall. This will be a 12-week course that surveys important topics in astronomy, including the philosophy of science, some history of astronomy, the night sky, seasons, moon phases, eclipses, atoms and spectra, the solar system, stars and stellar remnants, observational astronomy, galaxies, the big bang, the fate of the universe, and multiverses, string theory, and other controversies in cosmology.

This is a modern science course taught by a credentialed astrophysicist, and includes both historical perspective and cutting edge science. If you are fascinated by the night sky, and want to learn more about nature’s grand spectacle, this is the course for you. There is no prerequisite, and the course will be mostly at the conceptual level, but students may find that a bit of rudimentary algebra is helpful.

The format of the course is a weekly 90 minute video lecture followed by optional Q&A, reading assignments and night sky exercises (no telescope required), and periodic quizzes to assess your understanding. The course will be offered on a graded, pass/fail, or audit basis. Students who successfully take the course graded or pass/fail will receive a certificate of completion.

If there’s interest, future courses could include: introductory conceptual physics, modern conceptual physics (relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear and particle physics), and the Bible and science.

A brief biographical sketch of the professor: I received a B.A. in physics (minor in mathematics) from Eastern Oregon University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Texas at Austin. I am currently a research scientist at a major research institution, where I study nature’s most extreme objects: quasars and supermassive black holes. I am also a visiting professor of physics at a liberal arts university, where I have taught astronomy and physics for several years. I am a devoted Christian who was inspired to convert from atheism to Christianity through my scientific work, and continue to find inspiration in the convergence of Christian belief and modern science.

Male engineering student doen’t have a clue why female classmates aren’t his equals

A male engineering student wrote this painfully ingratiating letter to the editor claiming that because the women in his classes face obstacles he doesn’t, they are “unequal” to men (but in a way that implies women are better).


Of course, it’s getting a lot of attention and approval in the media. The author of a Huffington Post article discussing the letter—who doesn’t appear to be a woman in a hard science—confidently asserts in the title of her piece, “Male Engineering Student Perfectly Explains Why Female Classmates Aren’t His Equals.” However, as an actual woman in a hard science, I found Mr. Mauldin’s letter mostly divorced from reality.

Let’s take this point by point.

I did not, for example, grow up in a world that discouraged me from focusing on hard science.

When I think of girls in hard science, I think of the girls in my International Baccalaureate high school program, who comprised about half of the students in the physics and chemistry classes. My brother’s high school physics lab partner, who was probably the smartest student in the IB program, went on to get her PhD in astrophysics from Harvard. Nobody discouraged her. And I, as the not-smartest student in the program, went on to get my PhD in astrophysics from another top-ten department. Nobody discouraged me.

The truth is, girls are saturated in encouragement to try hard science. Every science scholarship and program that I’ve ever applied for as a student, or promoted to my students as a professor, has included the statement “Women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.” I received a scholarship from my alma mater without even applying just for being a woman in physics. I see this kind of stuff everywhere. To assess the extent of it, I typed “girls in stem programs” (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and math) and “girls in stem outreach” into Google, and found an astonishing number of institutions with programs meant to engage girls in STEM, including the White House, Girl Scouts, The Huffington Post, NASA, the Department of Energy, the YWCA, Verizon, and Intel. There are also countless programs through schools and universities, as well as non-profits devoted solely to promoting girls in STEM.

Update: The Wall Street Journal reports the following tech firms have pledged to hire girls from the program, Girls Who Code:

Accenture PLC
Adobe Systems Inc.
Akamai Technologies Inc.
AOL Inc.
AppNexus Inc.
AT&T Inc.
Capital One Financial Corp.
Electronic Arts Inc.
Expedia Inc.
Facebook Inc.
FiscalNote Inc.
General Electric Co.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
International Business Machines Corp.
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
LinkedIn Corp.
Microsoft Corp.
Prudential Financial Inc.
Qualcomm Inc.
Square Inc.
Twitter Inc.
Viacom Inc.

Nor did I live in a society that told me not to get dirty, or said I was bossy for exhibiting leadership skills.

What does this have to do with hard science? I don’t know what point Mr. Mauldin’s trying to make with this, but you don’t need leadership skills to do well academically, nor do you need to do anything that will get you dirty. In fact, the opposite is true. Stereotypical science nerds are shy and awkward, and they don’t tend to be rugged and outdoorsy.

In grade school I never had to fear being rejected by my peers because of my interests.

Kids are jerks. The worst ones will try to outgroup you for any reason, no matter how petty. I remember being viciously mocked for having braces and for wearing an “I (heart) Def Leppard” pin on my jacket. But I don’t remember ever being rejected by my peers because of my interest in science. But maybe that’s because I didn’t care enough to notice. I had such passion for my interests, that nothing would have deterred me from them. Ask anyone who has a passion for what they do — they either didn’t care what others thought or they persevered through the fear of rejection. If you quit doing something because you feared being rejected, there’s a very good chance you simply didn’t have enough interest to do it in the first place.

Nevertheless, my experience isn’t everyone else’s experience. Mr. Mauldin’s claim is fundamentally dishonest, and if you’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory, you know why.

A lot of the appeal of
The Big Bang Theory is its authenticity and relatability. Leonard and Sheldon represent an extreme, but we can identify with them, because we’ve all experienced rejection by our peers for who we are. The difference between boys and girls, however, is that boys are far more likely to experience that rejection in the form of physical violence than girls are. What girl ever got an atomic wedgie for being a science nerd?

Of course, nothing beats Revenge of the Nerds for blowing the lid off the tortured world of the male high school nerd:

The shy and awkward boys I grew up with feared being rejected by their peers because of their interest in science. I was surprised to read that even someone like Will Smith feared it. Yes, that Will Smith. When he was a high school student in Philadelphia, he carried his school books home in a pizza box, because he didn’t want to be taunted by his peers for studying.

If you were a popular kid in school who never experienced rejection for an interest in science, then you are probably unaware of the geek underground that exists in most schools as a “safe space” for nerdy students to pursue their interests. This was perfectly captured in an episode of The Simpsons, when Bart found himself temporarily transformed into a nerd. Running for his life from bullies, we see Bart pulled into a hiding place by other nerds. They explain to him that this hiding place is a “refuge of the damned,” “a place where we can work on our extra-credit assignments without fear of reprisal.”


This isn’t fiction; these refuges exist. When I was in school, they were often the A/V clubs:

Just about everyone fears being rejected by their peers for something. It’s not predominantly a girl thing. Boys experience just as much if not more rejection for their interest in science.

I was not bombarded by images and slogans telling me that my true worth was in how I look…

He’s right about this. But it’s mostly other females who bombard girls with images and slogans telling them their true worth is in how they look. There’s an entire industry devoted to it, and it’s largely run and supported by women. Moreover, the largely unspoken secret of girl-world is that girls are brutally mean to each other; and when girls attack other girls, they don’t tell them they’re terrible at science, they tell them they’re fat and ugly.

… and that I should abstain from certain activities because I might be thought too masculine.

Where are the images and slogans telling girls they should abstain from science because they might be thought too masculine? I’ve never seen them. In fact, the sexy scientist in TV and movies is so common that it’s become a trope. Remember Dr. Jones, nuclear physicist, from The World Is Not Enough?


Girls, don’t try to be like her. You will be rejected for being too masculine. 

Maybe these images and slogans telling women science is too masculine exist, but I’ve never seen anything like that, so they can’t be very common. In fact, from what I’ve seen, the opposite is true. We’re bombarded with images and slogans telling girls that they can (and should) do science. For example, I typed “girls in science” into a Google image search, and was bombarded with countless images of feminine girls happily doing science.

I was not overlooked by teachers who assumed that the reason I did not understand a tough math or science concept was, after all, because of my gender.

Perhaps this happens, but I’ve never experienced it, and neither did any of the other girls in my classes.

Also, women tend to miss that men are harder on each other than they are on women, but in different ways. For a woman, being ignored stings. For a man, being told you’re an idiot in front of the entire class stings. I’ve seen it happen. Some of my male professors related stories of the astonishingly harsh treatment they received from their professors when they were students, including public humiliation. The difference is, boys don’t take harsh treatment as a personal attack; they tend to accept it and use it as motivation to stick with it and improve.

I have had no difficulty whatsoever with a boys club mentality, and I will not face added scrutiny or remarks of my being the “diversity hire.” When I experience success the assumption of others will be that I earned it.

Mr. Mauldin’s not wrong about this. Nobody assumes a male in STEM was a “diversity hire,” because there are no policies to admit boys to a STEM program, advance them, and hire them, solely on the basis of being male.

If you don’t want women to face added scrutiny for being the “diversity hire,” then eliminate the diversity policies that admit and hire them on the basis of being female.


If you’re a man in STEM who wants to improve the lot of girls interested in hard science, don’t bother with letters like Mr. Mauldin’s. You may get some attention on social media, but after that blows over, it won’t have provided any measurable benefit to anyone.

Instead, explain to these girls what it is you love about science, and ask them if they feel the same way. Ask them how much time they spend thinking about and doing science. If it’s not as much as you, tell them they aren’t as interested as they think they are. In fact, girls are so saturated with pro-girls-in-STEM information that, in my experience, some of them may be feeling pressure to engage in science more than they actually want to, and are feeling bad as a result. Tell them it’s okay to pursue other fields of study, and that STEM isn’t the only worthwhile thing to do in life.

If, on the other hand, they love science as much as you do, they’ll find a way to succeed, just like you did and just like I did.

Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum officially announced

Astronomy and Astrophysics

It’s official:

Today we are officially announcing the publication of ASTRONOMY AND ASTROPHYSICS, a curriculum created by Dr. Sarah Salviander, a research scientist whose areas of particular interest are quasars and supermassive black holes. She is a research scientist at the University of Texas, is one of the authors of “Evolution of the Black Hole Mass – Galaxy Bulge Relationship for Quasars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Data Release 7” and “Narrow Emission Lines as Surrogates for σ * in Low- to Moderate-z QSOs” in addition to many other scientific papers, and teaches classes as a visiting professor of physics at Southwestern University. Dr. Salviander describes the new curriculum at Castalia House:

“Look around the web for a high-quality, modern-science astronomy homeschool course and you won’t find much. There are a handful of scripture-based astronomy courses that seem to cover little more than the seasons and motions of the night sky, and one very expensive software-based curriculum. I realized there was a need for a comprehensive, modern, and affordable astronomy homeschool curriculum, and set out to develop one based on my years of teaching astronomy at the university level. A couple of years ago, I mentioned this in an offhand way to Vox Day; it turns out Vox had been contemplating offering a series of affordable, electronically-available homeschool curricula, and so we began to discuss the possibility of making astrophysics the first of many such courses.”

The course is suitable for ages 13+ with the appropriate background in mathematics — basic algebra and geometry — but there is no science prerequisite. It was designed primarily with homeschoolers in mind, but it would also work very well in public/private high schools, either as a conventional science course or as an independent study for motivated students. It is also suitable for adults who wish to learn about astronomy and astrophysics in a self-guided continuing education sort of way.

We’ve had at least one person ask whether the course is suitable for students in the Southern Hemisphere. The answer is yes, mostly, with the exception of a couple of lab activities; I’m going to look into adapting the two lab activities that only work in the Northern Hemisphere. If anyone has other questions about the curriculum, don’t hesitate to contact me.

The Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum is now available!


It hasn’t been formally announced by the publisher yet, but everyone’s so gosh-darn excited about the Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum that it’s already available at the Castalia House store for purchase.

Meanwhile, we are looking into setting up a forum on the SixDay website for instructors and students to discuss the course material with each other and get support. Hopefully, we’ll have something up and running by the end of August.

If you have any questions about the Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum — or the forthcoming Physics curriculum — contact us at questions [at] sixdayscience [dot] com (remove the spaces and fill in the appropriate symbols).

Why are Americans skeptical of some scientific ideas?

A recent poll indicates that Americans are skeptical of evolution by natural selection, global warming, and the big bang theory. Surprisingly (for me, anyway), the biggest scientific loser is the big bang, with 51% of the respondents skeptical that the universe was created approximately 14 billion years ago.

Frankly, this astonishes me. There are sound reasons to be skeptical of the theory of evolution by natural selection (TENS) and anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, but the evidence and arguments for the big bang theory are excellent — and also consistent with the Bible, which is no small thing, since the poll indicated that religiosity is correlated with disbelief in the big bang.

So, why are most Americans skeptical of the big bang?

This is not a rhetorical question; it’s something I’m striving to understand. Some Christians make the argument that a literal interpretation of the Bible requires a young Earth and young universe, but it appears to me that this belief is inspired, or supported, by an argument against evolution. Many people who are skeptical of TENS (particularly evangelical Christians) believe that it requires billions of years to work, therefore if the universe and the Earth are only thousands of years old, TENS doesn’t work. Never mind that billions of years can’t even begin to help TENS, that doesn’t explain why more people are skeptical of the big bang than evolution.

In any case, scientists are, understandably, distressed by these results. Randy Schekman, a Nobel laureate in medicine at UC-Irvine, said, “Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts.”

Schekman is both right and wrong. If quizzed on why he or she disbelieves in certain scientific ideas, I’m confident the average individual would not be able to explain the best evidence and arguments for and against the ideas. However, I don’t believe it has anything to do with leaders (presumably, he means religious and political leaders) being antagonistic to facts, but rather a vocal minority of scientists and their advocates being openly antagonistic to religious belief.

The poll highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

And scientists know they’ve got the shakiest leg in the triangle.

To the public “most often values and beliefs trump science” when they conflict, said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. [emphasis added]

Of course values and beliefs trump science in a conflict. Unlike science, values and beliefs comprise an entire worldview, one that has been around much longer than modern science and has been much more influential.

But there was a time, at the beginning of the era of modern science up until the mid-20th century, when the Christian worldview and science largely went hand-in-hand. In the 17th century, many if not most natural philosophers (what scientists were called at the time) were Christians, and they saw their work as glorifying God. Mitch Stokes, in his brief biography of Newton, writes:

According to metaphor, God has written two books—Scripture and Nature—and He is glorified by the study of either one. This view, this “belief in the sacral nature of science,” was prevalent among natural philosophers of the seventeenth century. As Frank Manuel, one of Newton’s most important twentieth-century biographers, says:

“The traditional use of science as a form of praise to the Father assumed new dimensions under the tutelage of Robert Boyle and his fellow-members of the Royal Society, and among the immediate disciples of Isaac Newton. … In the Christian Virtuoso, demonstrating that experimental philosophy [experimental science] assisted a man to be a good Christian, Boyle assured readers that God required not a slight survey, but a diligent and skilful scrutiny of His works.”

Although Newton’s intensity while pursuing his work ranges from humorous to alarming, it is put into a different light if we see it as a measure of his devotion to God. For Newton, “To be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.” This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians. [emphasis added]

There was only occasional conflict for scientists like Newton in the form of struggling to understand how certain aspects of nature are consistent with their interpretation of scripture.

The antagonistic sort of conflict we see today goes back at least as far as Thomas Huxley using Darwinian evolution to undermine Christian belief. Huxley knew TENS had insurmountable problems, but he saw it as a useful weapon to attack Christianity, which he despised.

Unfortunately, this sort of practice has become increasingly commonplace into the 20th and 21st centuries. Global warming isn’t by its nature useful as a direct attack on Christian belief, but it does represent an attack on the Christian ideal of limited government. The historical misuse of biology as a weapon against Christian belief began with Huxley and continues with modern biologists and their supporters — so much so that the public has little idea how much the most recent findings of evolutionary biology support the Christian view of creation. The misuse of physics to undermine Christian belief, however, is relatively new. I find it distressing not only because it is my field of study, but because the field of physics has historically led the way for the other sciences and represents the greatest scientific support for the Christian view of creation.

As a scientist — and irrespective of my Christian beliefs — I find the behavior of the attackers perplexing. The majority of Americans are either Christian or hold some general belief in a supreme being, so why do some scientists go out of their way to alienate a majority of people who support science by sending their children to universities and by paying taxes for government-supported science programs? At some point, they’re just not going to see the value of either. And they’re certainly not going to make the effort to become more literate in a topic that they’re told is in opposition to their faith. Modern scientists like Stephen Hawking who use their considerable scientific knowledge to attack religious belief are therefore doing a tremendous disservice to science. I don’t know what Hawking’s motivation is, but if he dislikes Christianity to the extent that he’s trying to undermine it, as Huxley did, then he is only indirectly realizing this goal and at the cost of eroding confidence in good science.

Poll results notwithstanding, big bang theory is good science — in fact, it is arguably the crowning achievement of modern science — and it is not only compatible with Christian belief, but in my opinion mandated by it. (I will expand on this in a future post.)

Meanwhile, there’s no use blaming political and religious “leaders” for the lack of confidence in science, because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that they don’t tend to lead the way, but jump out in front of the direction in which people are already going. If good science is going to flourish in America, two things must happen. Christians must become scientifically literate — which is something I hope to encourage with my ministry — but scientists have got to stop the public antagonism toward Christian belief.

The Astronomy & Astrophysics curriculum is finished!

Our publisher decided to go ahead and roll out the Astronomy & Astrophysics curriculum for the 2014-15 school year, so we’ve been working hard to get it completed, and now it’s off to the electronic presses. We’ve got a few families who are beta-testing the curriculum, and will hopefully get some helpful feedback. The curriculum will be offered for sale on and Smashwords in the next couple of months, and we’ll make an announcement once it’s available. Meanwhile, we’re working on the Physics I & II curricula, which will be available for the 2015-16 school year.

Now that we’re out of super-work-mode, look for more regular posting to occur here.

Updated update

In spite of the lack of activity here, there’s a lot going on with SixDay. We’re working furiously to complete the Astronomy & Astrophysics curriculum and getting started on the Physics curriculum. We are looking at options to create an online community for those using any of the curricula so that we can interact with instructors and students and provide a platform for them to interact with each other. By this time next year in 2015, we’re hoping for a lot of activity on this site.

The planned roll-out date for the curricula is May 2014 2015.

Update: After a discussion with our publisher’s liaison, we’ve decided to push back all of the curricula to the spring of 2015. Sarah and her husband are expecting a baby in January, and there’s simply too much to be done to roll out the curricula by next spring—we’d rather offer high-quality products a little later than something that’s rushed to meet an arbitrary deadline. The good news is that the physics course will be more substantial, and we are also planning to create an elective course for modern science and the Bible. See here for more information.

Questions from Christian Students, Part 3

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. All of the questions are listed in the Intro to this series; Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here

Has an effort by students to share their faith with you ever made an impact on you in any way?


I had a student approach me after a lecture to ask if it was okay to be Christian and a scientist. She was a devoted Christian, and was interested in science, but had been told by one of her professors that she could not be religious and believe in science. She was distressed by this professor’s proclamation, and it struck me then that most students do not have the training or resources available to them to counter such attacks. It was after talking to this student that I decided to start a ministry to help people like this young woman maintain their faith.

Have you ever had a student challenge an idea during class?

I never had a student challenge an idea with respect to religion. I did have students very occasionally challenge a scientific/philosophical idea, but it didn’t happen very often in the intro classes I taught, which is not good. A lot of what is taught in science—particularly in physics and astronomy—should seem weird to students who are introduced to it for the first time, and they should be asking serious questions about it; but it was rare for students to challenge ideas. I did have one student who was annoyed when I explained that no scientific theory is watertight, and that all ideas are subject to refinement and replacement with new ideas. He (not unreasonably) responded to this by asking why he had to bother learning science at all, when its ideas were subject to change at any time. This started a fruitful discussion, and hopefully got other students in the class to think about the nature of human knowledge.

Do you wish you could talk about your faith in the classroom / office hours? If so, what keeps you from doing it?

When I was teaching, I had no desire to bring up my faith in the classroom, aside from a brief statement on the first day of class that I am a believing professor. My approach is not to push—I prefer students to initiate the discussion. If any student had wanted to start a discussion about science and religion in class, and it pertained to the subject of the lecture, I would have obliged; but it never happened. I did, however, have students approach me outside of class time to discuss how science relates to the Christian faith, and I was always happy to do so.

Looking for easy answers


According to the site stats, more than a few students looking for homework answers are being directed by search engines to this blog (probably because this site hosts an online astronomy textbook). WordPress’ site stats show me the exact search terms used, which can be rather amusing. Here is a small sample of the search terms (verbatim) that brought students here:

5. using kepler’s third law of planetary motion, determine the distance in astronomical units the planet jupiter is from the sun, knowing that jupiter takes approximately 11.86 years to orbit the sun one time

Here’s a wild idea: try using Kepler’s third law of planetary motion to determine the distance. The equation is p2 = a3, and you’ve been given p. If you don’t know how to determine a, I suggest you ask your middle school math teachers for a refund.

given that the moon has an angular diameter of about 0.5 and an average distance of about 380,000 km from earth, calculate its actual diameter. (hint: recall the angular separation formula)

When I was teaching university classes, it amazed me how often students would overlook the hints I gave them, as though they contained superfluous information (“hint: breathe in and out”). On the contrary, the hints are always meant to be helpful, and often they practically give the answer away, as is the case with the question above. The angular separation formula is basic trigonometry, which you should have mastered in high school; it contains three variables, two of which have been given to you. If this is really beyond your ability to figure out, you should rethink university; it’s only going to get tougher.

how does retrograde motion play a crucial role in defining the differences between the geocentric and heliocentric model?

It’s almost certain you’ve been given this information in a lecture and in the textbook. If you’re going to skip the lectures, at the very least you should scan the book for this information.

knowing that the surface gravity of jupiter is approximately 2.5 that of the earth what would be the approximate weight of a 125 pound person on jupiter

Three variables, two of which have been given. Yes, it’s rocket science (sort of), but the junior version. My 11 year-old homeschooled nephew could do this in his sleep.

the radius of the earth’s orbit around the sun is 1.5 *10^ 11m.if the sun suddenly enlarged

… ?? We’ll never know for sure, but this sounds like a common homework question, which asks how the Earth’s orbit would change if the Sun suddenly enlarged to X size. This is slightly more advanced than the above questions, because it involves thinking about a concept rather than just plugging numbers into a formula or rewording a passage from the textbook. Again, it’s almost certain your textbook covers this concept — time to exercise that grey lump between your ears.

What strikes me as odd about these searches is that the questions are entered word-for-word, which indicates the person searching doesn’t even know what s/he’s being asked. As many years of university-level teaching have shown me, a great many students are not only deficient in the basics (reading, writing, math, and factual information), they aren’t taught how to think, to the point that they cannot parse a very simple problem. These are people who are going to struggle in life.

If you are a student who is too lazy to expend the necessary effort or who struggles with the basics, consider whether you should be spending your time and money on university. It is a serious endeavor that requires your full devotion. If you feel like you’re in over your head, talk to your advisor and be 100% forthright about your struggles. It may be that you should spend a couple of years mastering the basics in community college and/or developing a work ethic before you return to university. There is no shame in acknowledging your deficiencies; on the contrary, it’s a sign of strength.