Introductory Astronomy

Oberlin College Astronomy 100

Syllabus for Fall 200X

Look up into the clear night sky. There you will find a spectacular display: white, blue, and red stars, dim stars and bright stars, stars thinly spaced and stars densely packed. We know now that these stars are born out of gas clouds, live for billions of years (during which they suffer changes in size, temperature, and color) and then die either through slow decay or through dramatic explosions. How did human kind -- earthbound and short lived -- uncover such wonderful and unexpected facts?

Instructor: Dan Styer, Wright Laboratory 205A, 775-8183,
home telephone 775-0959 (6 pm to 9 pm only).

Class meetings: Monday, Wednesday, Friday; 3:30 -- 4:20 p.m.; Wright Laboratory 103.

Office hours: After each class meeting, or by appointment.

Course web page:

Topics: The term "astronomy" covers everything from the stars to the planets (including our own Earth), to the gases between stars and planets, to the galaxies, to exotic objects like pulsars, quasars, and black holes, and even to the Greek myths and Arabic history that gave rise to our constellations and to our star names. It would be impossible to treat all these interesting topics in a single course, or even in a single lifetime. This course emphasizes stars and goes on to treat galaxies and the structure of the universe in somewhat less detail.

Readings: The textbook for this course is Michael A. Seeds, Foundations of Astronomy, sixth edition (Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, California, 2000). There will be a reading assignment for every class meeting. Do this reading before coming to class so that during class time we can clarify, analyze, and build upon the textbook's discussion.

There are a lot of details in this book (or any other book about science). I do not expect you to memorize the details. Instead, I want you to be able to work with the information, to make inferences from the data, and to build your understanding in directions that the textbook might not explore.

Observing sessions: Reading is one thing, seeing is another. There will be (optional) opportunities to observe with Oberlin's telescope atop Peters Hall during the semester. Times and procedures will depend upon the weather and will be announced in class. Updates (such as last-minute cancellations due to cloud cover) are given through the course web page.

Conference sessions: I will conduct an informal question and answer session throughout the semester on Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m. in our regular class meeting place.

Quantitative proficiency: An equation may appear to be brief, and it may appear to be just a jumble of symbols. But there is a meaning, a story, behind every equation. One of the course goals is to help you uncover these meanings -- to learn to "read an equation" in the same way that a connoisseur can "read a painting" to uncover meaning that lies beneath the surface. Some of you will be more adept than others in uncovering such meanings, but all of you should learn that they exist. If you are faced in debate with an opponent who writes down an equation and claims that this equation proves his point, you should demand that your opponent describe in words its meaning -- the story behind the equation. If your opponent can't do so, then it's just as if he had quoted an expression in Latin and doesn't know the English meaning.

Problem assignments: Passed out on Wednesday, due at the beginning of the class meeting nine days later on Friday. My model solutions will be distributed at the end of this class, so late assignments cannot usually be accepted. (I may make an exception in the case of a medical or family emergency, but in most cases it is to your advantage to move on to the next assignment rather than to let old work pile up.) There will be an assignment due on every Friday except the first Friday of the semester, and Fridays with exams. Your lowest homework score will be dropped in determining your grade. Staple your answer pages together before turning them in.

I encourage you to collaborate or to seek printed help in working the problems, but the final write-up must be entirely your own: you may not copy word for word or thought for thought. When you do obtain outside help you must acknowledge it. (E.g. "By looking at the graph in Seeds figure 9-23 I find that. . ." or "Using the temperature-brightness relation (as suggested by Carol Hall). . ." or even "In working these problems I benefited from discussions with Mike Fisher and John Silsbee.") Such an acknowledgement will never lower your grade; it is required as a simple matter of intellectual fairness. The problems in each assignment will be graded by a student working under my supervision.

In answering your homework (and exam) problems, you must show your work. That is, you must present your evidence and your reasoning as well as your final conclusion. (This rule holds for all intellectual discourse. For example, suppose you are asked in an English Literature course to consider Melville's influence on American literature. After considerable investigation and thought, you might well conclude that "Moby Dick changed the entire landscape of the American novel." If you typed up this single sentence and submitted it as your paper, your professor would be unimpressed.) Exactly how much detail should you give in presenting your reasoning? A good rule of thumb is to present enough detail that you could reconstruct your thought processes two or three months later, when you're using your solutions to study for the final exam.

Exams: There will be two one-hour exams and one two-hour final exam. The two one-hour exams are scheduled for 3:30 p.m. (class time) on the Fridays of 29 September and 10 November. The final will be at 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. on Friday, 22 December (the time set by the registrar). I will drop the lowest hour's worth of exam score in determining your grade (i.e. either the score of one one-hour exam or half the score of the final). All exams will be in-class, but I'll arrange for several lab rooms and class rooms to be open so that you can spread your work out. No collaboration is permitted in working the exams, but you may consult your own notes that fit on both sides of one 8 1/2 by 11 inch page of paper. Calculators, rulers, and protractors are permitted. Before each exam I will distribute a topics list and a sample exam consisting of exam questions that I have given in previous incarnations of this course.

Grading: Your final numerical grade will be compounded of one part problem assignments and two parts exam. Anyone earning less than fifty percent of the total possible points obtainable in this manner will not receive course credit.