Astronomy 210: General Astronomy Fall 2010


Professor Teaching Assistant
Brian Fields
Astronomy Building Room 216
Phone: 333-5529
Office Hours: Wednesday 11am-noon, or by appointment
Rukmani Vijayaraghavan
Astronomy 133
Phone: 333-8040.
Office Hours: Thursday 10:30-11:30am, or by appointment

Welcome to Astronomy! In this course we will develop a qualitative and quantitative understanding of the structure and evolution of physical universe, from the night sky to the earliest instants of the big bang. We will apply basic physical principles on grand scales to outline the major aspects of modern astrophysics. We will explore the deep connections between our understanding of inner and outer space, and find astrophysics to be a great symphony which interweaves all areas of classical and modern physics.

The goal is to develop a broad conceptual synthesis. To do this effectively--to "get under the hood" and see how the cosmic machinery works--requires mathematical description. Thus, the lectures and assignments will feature a strong quantitative component. Indeed, we will find that a quantitative analysis is often essential to address qualitative questions, the results of which can lead to revolutions in our view of the universe.

Course Requirements

Requirement Percentage of Grade Points
2 Hour Exams 2 x 10% each 20% 200
Final Exam 15% 150
Homework (best 9 of 10) 9 x 5% each 45% 450
Computational Astrophysics Project 5% 50
Night observing 5% 50
Solar observing 5% 50
Participation 5% 50
Total 100% 1000

Course Text

Recommended: Barbara Ryden & Bradley Peterson, Foundations of Astrophysics.
This book gives a modern and up-to-date overview of modern astrophysics, using elementary physics to develop and understanding of the observed universe. Thus, this book closely follows the sprit and level of our course. It contains more material that we will cover, but its treatment of material we will cover is generally very good and complementary to my own.

I do not make it a practice to follow the textbook in structuring the course or the lectures. Rather, I will present material in the manner that I find most pedagogical and, I hope, entertaining; the textbook will serve to offer an excellent alternative discussion for those times when you find my own to be unclear and/or incomplete.


The following table shows the approximate grading scale in this course.

Grade Approximate Range
A 90-100%
B 80-89%
C 70-79%
D 60-69%
F <60%

Final course grades will follow these guidelines. The ranges are approximate in that I may have to adjust them if, for example, I give an exam that is a little too hard. In any case, I will not increase the minimum cutoffs for each letter grade. In other words, you should expect that grade or higher. Plusses and minuses will be used.


There will be two in-class hour exams, and a comprehensive final exam. Exam dates and information posted here.


There will be 11 homework assignments given throughout the course. These are meant to sharpen your thinking on the material covered in lecture, to develop physical intuition and quantitative skills, and to help prepare you for the exams. Homework is due at the beginning of class on almost every Friday.

Homework assignments and solutions posted here.

Homework counts for 45% of the final grade. Your best 9 homework grades will be counted. However, you are responsible for all of the material covered on all 11 homework assingments. Thus, it is to your advantage to do all 11 of the assignments, and hand them in on time.

Computational Astrophysics Project

Computers are essential tools for modern astrophysics. To give you a feel for this, you will be assigned a project that will involve a computer in an essential way, either to analyze real, modern, cosmological data, or to build a simulation of a star. Programming ability is not required.

Assignment will be posted here


Nighttime Observing. Evening observing sessions will be held for several weeks at the Campus Observatory. You are required to go to one session at any of the several dates posted here. At the session there will be 4 stations which you can visit in any order. You may come any time during a session, but expect to stay a full hour and so leave enough time for this. Dress warmly. The weather is unpredictable, so go early in the semester.

Solar Observing. Daytime sessions to observe the sun are held at the Campus Observatory. You are required to go to one session at any of the dates posted here. Sessions are held from 10:30 am to 3:30 pm. You may go any time during these hours; the session will take about 30 min for observing and hearing a presentation from the TA on duty. As with nighttime observing, the weather is unpredictable, so go early.

Note that both night and solar observing are required. While you only need to observe for one night and one day, you must be available to do this for several occasions, since there is no way to guarantee that weather will permit observing on any one day or night. If you are unavailable for night or solar observing, see the instructor immediately. If you don't go to an observing session then your report will not be accepted will lose points worth 5% of your final grade.

Reports. Forms are posted here, containing instructions and questions to be answered before, during, and after your night and solar observing sessions. Due dates will be announced.

Class Participation

You are expected to attend lectures. I will cover material in class that will not always be in the sugested text, and the lecture material will be included on the exam. Class time is the most valuable for you if you come prepared, and are ready to actively engage the material. To encourage your engagement, the lectures will often be punctuated by opportunities for your feedback, in the form of asking questions, "voting" on the possible outcomes of observations or demonstrations, brainstorming answers to open-ended questions, or listening to fellow student presentations. To reward your participation in these activities, you will often be asked to respond via the iClicker.

Make sure to register your iClicker here by September 13th.

These participation surveys are not "quizzes" in the usual sense, in that you are not required to get all answers right. Rather, you will always get substantial credit (80 out of 100 participation points) simply by offering any scientifically reasonable response. The point of this is that the survey is always an opportunity to gain points as long as you are actively engaged, even if you are still a little confused. Indeed, the most difficult and potentially confusing subjects are precisely those that most require you participation!

Although the number of these is not set, often they come upon me in a whim, we will usually have at least one question per lecture, and each lecture will count the same number of points. About 5-10% of daily participation scores will be dropped to help those who must miss class from time to time.


Special presentations designed for Astronomy students will be held at Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College (on Bradley Avenue in Champaign). Attendance is not required, but you are encouraged to go, and you can earn up to 10 points extra credit.

Show dates and transportation information. You are responsible for your own transportation; bus routes are available.

Admission Charge: A $3 charge is required and must be paid in cash or by check at the planetarium.

Report: A form posted here contains a series of questions about what you learn during your visit. The report will be graded out of 10 points, which will count as extra credit towards your final grade.

Three-Minute Essays

Occasionally, you will be asked to write a "three minute essay" in class. This will be a chance to briefly collect your thoughts or your questions on the material we are discussing. These will be collected and read, but will not be assigned a letter grade. Instead, I will keep a record of who has turned in the assignments. A record of consistent and thoughtful responses on these essays will indicate that you have regularly and actively attended the classes, and this will justify a "boost" if your final course score is at the borderline between two grades.

Academic Integrity and Collaborative Work

Academic honesty is essential to this course and the University. Any instance of academic dishonesty (including but not limited to cheating, plagiarism, falsification of data, and alteration of grade) will be documented in the student's academic file. In addition, the particular exam, homework, or report will be given a zero.

Guidelines for collaborative work: Discussing course material with your classmates is in general not only allowed but in fact a good idea. However, each student is expected to do his or her own work. On homework, you may discuss the questions and issues behind them, but you are responsible for your own answers. In writing observing and planetarium reports, you may discuss with classmates during the activity, but again, you are expected to give your own individual answers in your own words. Finally, on exams your work and your answers must of course be entirely your own.

Brian Fields
Last modified: Mon Aug 30 12:28:23 CDT 2010