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Syllabus: Weightlessness


ChE 024, Section 002: Freshmen and Sophomore Seminar - Spring 2013, UC Berkeley

Dr. Mierk Anne Schwabe
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
D75 Tan Hall
mierk (AT) berkeley (DOT) edu
Office hours by appointment only

1 unit
Wednesdays, 4:00 - 5:00 pm, 221 Wheeler Hall

Prerequisites: None except an interest in physics and space science

Course Objectives

This course gives an introduction to physics experiments in weightlessness. We will talk about why experiments need to be performed without gravity, what alternatives exist and how experiments are conducted under these conditions. We will use dusty/complex plasmas as example.

Class expectations

The course is graded on a fail/no-fail basis. You are expected to attend all class meetings and complete homework assignments before class. You should actively participate in class discussions. The grading is based on

  • 40% Class Attendance, Homework Assignments and Participation
  • 60% Final Paper
In order to pass the course, you must have at least 70% passing grades after the weighting.


Please pay attention, turn off your cell phones, respect other people's right to speak uninterrupted, and do not eat during class. If illness or family emergencies prevent you from coming to class or handing in assignments, report this to me via email. You are encouraged to collaborate with other students, including on the final paper. However, everybody needs to turn in his or her own work, and every contribution by another person needs to be acknowledged. If you word-for-word copy somebody else's work, this must be indicated by quotation marks and the appropriate reference. If you paraphrase somebody else, this must be indicated with a reference. Any student who cheats will fail this course and will be reported to the Center for Student Conduct.

If a lecture has to be cancelled because I'm sick or due to inclement weather, I will post an announcement and messages via the course site on bSpace. I welcome feedback and constructive criticism. Please email me with feedback on the course contents, teaching and format at any time. In addition, at the end of each lecture, I will distribute pieces of paper on which I ask you to write one thing that you learned that day, or one question that you'd like to have answered. I'll get back to these in the next lecture. I will do my best to accommodate any religious beliefs, disabilities and other special needs. Please contact me in advance so that we can plan accordingly.

Final paper

The final paper is due on 5/15/2013 at 11:59 pm by email. To be safe, send the mail a few hours before midnight - I will acknowledge that I have received it. The paper should be 5-6 pages long (single or double spacing, 12pt or smaller, Times New Roman font or equivalent). You can chose any topic related to the course material that you like. For example, you could describe a possible student experiment that could be done on a parabolic flight (see Resources below). Or you could research another physics experiment that requires weightlessness, etc. 
You should demonstrate that you understand the topic, give at least 3 references, talk about how your topic relates to the course, why weightlessness was necessary in that case, and discuss what methods were used. Note that Wikipedia is not an acceptable reference. During the semester, you should send me updates about the paper by email or hand them in in person before or after the seminar (see schedule).

Schedule (tentative)

30-JanPrinciples of weightlessness
06-FebMethods to achieve weightlessness I
13-FebIs physics different in weightlessness?
20-FebPhysics II
27-FebComplex and dusty plasmas in the laboratory and in space
06-MarComplex and dusty plasmas in the laboratory and in space II
13-MarOther physics experiments in weightlessness I
20-MarOther physics experiments in weightlessness II
Preliminary topic of final paper due
27-MarSpring break
03-AprOther physics experiments in weightlessness III/Compensating for gravity I
10-AprCompensating for gravity II
Outline of final paper due
17-AprSimulations I
24-AprSimulations II
Bibliography of final paper due
01-MayHow to prepare an experiment for weightlessness/what happens on a parabolic flight
Draft of final paper due




  • 1g: the acceleration of gravity on Earth
  • complex plasma: ionized gas with micrometer sized particles embedded in it
  • drop tower: tower inside which experiments are dropped to be weightless for a few seconds
  • ISS: International Space Station
  • Mir: previous Russian space station, deorbited in 2001
  • microgravity: conditions in which gravity is very small (by definition less than 1 mcg = 1/1,000,000 g). Often used as synonym for weightlessness
  • parabolic flight: flight with a plane that follows a parabolic trajectory. Depending on the flight path, near-weightlessness of up to 25 s can be reached
  • sounding rocket: rocket that follows a parabolic flight trajectory, allowing for experiments in microgravity of minutes duration
  • zero-g: used as synonym for weightlessness


      This syllabus is subject to change. 
      Acknowledgement: I used this syllabus by Prof. Goldberg as inspiration: http://goldberg.berkeley.edu/courses/F12/24/

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