Astronomy 210: General Astronomy University of Illinois Spring 2011


Professor Teaching Assistant
Brian Fields
Astronomy Building Room 216
Phone: 333-5529
Office Hours: Wednesday 2:00-3:00pm, or by appointment
Rukmani Vijayaraghavan
Astronomy 133
Phone: 333-8040.
Office Hours: 10:30-11:30am Thursday

course webpage:

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, Observing, and Planetarium (best 12 of 14) 12 x 5% each 60% 600
Participation 5% 50
Total 100% 1000

Each of the 11 homework assignments, as well as each of the night observing, solar observing, and the planetarium reports, are worth 50 points and thus 5% of the final grade. Of these 14 total assignments, the top 12 scores will be used to compute your final grade, i.e., the lowest 2 scores will be dropped.

Course Text

Required: 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. The text also provides useful diagrams and tables of data.

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 92.5-100%
B 82.5-92.5%
C 72.5-82.5%
D 62.5-72.5%
F <62.5%

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.

You are responsible for all of the material covered on all 11 homework assignments. Thus, it is to your advantage to do all 11 of the assignments, and hand them in on time.

Computers in Astrophysics

Computers are essential tools for modern astrophysics. To give you a feel for this, several homework assignments will involve a online astronomical data. One assignment towards the end of the course will be particularly focused on computer-based analysis, either analyzing real, modern, cosmological data, or to build a simulation of a star. Programming ability is not required for any of these assignments, but a programming option will be available for the computer-intensive homework assignment.


Nighttime Observing. Evening observing sessions will be held for several weeks at the Campus Observatory. You may attend any 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 may attend any 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.

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 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, or brainstorming answers to open-ended questions. 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 February 4th.

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 simply by offering a scientifically reasonable response even if it is wrong (and in some cases the questions have no single correct answer, in which case all responses receive full credit). 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!

For each iClicker poll, 1.5 participation points will be available: the full 1.5 points will be awarded to correct response(s), while 1 point will be given for any other scientifically reasonable responses. Your total participation points will accumulate until they reach a maximum of 50 total participation points; if you faithfully attend class and answer correctly most of the time, you can reach this maximum a few weeks before the end of the semester. There are thus ample opportunities to attain this maximum score, even if several classes are missed due to situations such as late class registration, family emergencies, job interviews, and malfunctioning iClickers; therefore no additional participation opportunities will be available beyond those in each class.


Special presentations designed for Astronomy students will be held at Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College (on Bradley Avenue in Champaign).

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.

Late Registration

Students considering late registration, particularly after Jan 21, are welcome but strongly encouraged to speak with the instructor prior to joining the course.

Out of fairness, the same grading standards will be used for all students in the course, and all students will be responsbile for all assignments and all lecture material. Those students who register late are welcome, but join the course with the understanding that they are responsible for the material covered before they joined the course. The policy of dropping the lowest two assigments allows late registering students to avoid penalty on any assignments missed before joining the course, as long as the remaining assingments are completed.

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: Wed Jan 19 10:21:38 CST 2011