A philosophical perspective

Astronomy is the oldest of the sciences. Before there were towns and cities, when there was no light pollution or air pollution, most ancient people were familiar with the sky at night. They understood very little of what they saw, but they were familiar with the phases of the Moon and knew that different constellations were visible at different times of the year. They used observations of the Sun and stars to formulate calendars, by which they could plant, harvest, and survive.

A basic astronomy course is a survey of the entire universe. As a result, one can cover very little in any depth over the course of an academic semester. Still, we're going to do our best!

Astronomy is a natural science (as opposed to a social science) meaning that many aspects of the objects of study (celestial bodies) can be described numerically. Thus, it is a quantitative science. But when all is said and done, the most important things to understand about astronomy are qualitative . How do we know that the Earth is not the center of the solar system? How do we know that the Sun is not at the center of the Galaxy? What will be the eventual fate of the universe? In your university education, perhaps the most important question you can ask is: "How do I know what I know?" Do I accept at face value what some person has said, what some other person has written, or have I determined it independently, on my own?

The study of astronomy is not just the study of planets, stars, and galaxies. It is also the study of the people who were motivated to investigate the universe. Some of these curious people formulated questions that were "impossible" to answer, yet a few decades (or centuries) later other people came up with definitive answers. As the poet Robert Browning said, "... a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Five basic themes of basic astronomy

As Bennett, Donahue, Schneider, and Voit point out in their text The Essential Cosmic Perspective , it makes sense to built a one semester course on beginning astronomy around five basic themes:

I. We are a part of the universe and thus can learn about our origins by studying the universe.

II. The universe is comprehensible through scientific principles that anyone can understand.

III. Science is not a body of facts but rather a process through which we seek to understand the world around us.

IV. A course in astronomy is the beginning of a lifelong learning experience.

V. Astronomy affects each of us personally with the new perspectives it offers.

For example, the Apollo 8 astronauts took the following picture of the Earth rising over the Moon's horizon on December 24, 1968.

Each day you can see something interesting at the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Our textbook is The Essential Cosmic Perspective , 8th edition, by Jeff Bennett and coauthors. Buying a new book gets you an access code number that allows you to create an online account to access their website. (There will be web-graded homework.) If you throw away the code that comes with your book, it costs something like 60 dollars to buy access to the website. If you have a used copy of the previous edition, you will need to buy access to the online homework for the 8th edition.

The website for the book is www.pearsonmylabandmastering.com. The Pearson course ID for online homework is "krisciunas66672" for section 501 (the 09:20 class). The course ID is "krisciunas72984" for section 502 (the 12:00 pm class).

Notes from Pearson relating to registering for online homework (09:20 am class).

Notes from Pearson relating to registering for online homework (12:00 pm class).

Supplementary reading is A Guide to Wider Horizons , 2nd edition, ISBN 978-1-5249-0115-8, by Krisciunas. There were three copies of the 2nd edition available on reserve at the Evans Library Annex. Three copies of the 1st edition can be checked out from the regular stacks at the Evans Library; the call number is Q162.K75 2014.

To order a hard copy or e-book of the Supplementary Reading directly from the publisher, click here.

Here is the opening chapter:

1. Introduction

A review of this book can be read here.

Syllabus for fall 2020.

These URLs for live Zoom sessions may have to be changed later in the semester, but here they are for now:

To arrange to see me at my office (MPHY 312) send me an email message using kevinkrisciunas@tamu.edu

The montillation of traxoline.

Some facts and concepts to have at your fingertips.

Downloadable Powerpoint talks:

Week 1: Introduction and some basic concepts

Weeks 1/2: Introduction to the sky

The celestial sphere

Week 2: Phases of the moon. Eclipses.

Week 3: History of astronomy - Part I.

Week 4: More on Copernicus

Weeks 3/4: History of astronomy - Part II.

Weeks 4/5: Newton's physics and Relativity.

Chapter 4 supplementary notes.

Week 6: Telescopes

Weeks 6/7: Light, spectra, Doppler shifts

Study guide #1 click here

Clicker questions, batch 1 click here

Wednesday, September 30, first exam

Week 8: Solar system topics

Week 9: The Sun

Weeks 9/10: Basic properties of stars

Week 10: The importance of star clusters

The interstellar medium

Star formation

Week 10: Stellar evolution

Week 10/11: Star deaths (white dwarfs, supernovae)

Week 11: Neutron stars and black holes

Week 11/12: The Milky Way galaxy

Weeks 12/13 Other galaxies, the expansion of the universe

Study guide #2 click here

Clicker questions, batch 2 click here

Monday, November 9, second exam

Tuesday, November 10, 5 pm, Q-drop date

Weeks 14/15 Quasars, Dark Matter, and cosmology

One student's notes for a review for the final exam

The final exam for section 501 (the 09:20 class) will occur on Wednesday, December 2, from 8 to 10:30 AM.

The final exam for section 502 (the noon class) will occur on Monday, December 7, from 11 AM to 1:30 PM.

Observing at Cerro Tololo Observatory

Comparison of sizes of various solar system objects, and Sun with other stars

Distribution of stars and galaxies from the local stars to the observable universe.

The entire known universe...

Review material:

The cosmological distance ladder

Very abbreviated study guide

Go back to Kevin Krisciunas home page by clicking here.