Syllabus: ASTR 1050: Survey of Astronomy, Fall 2010


Instructor:                     Michael Brotherton

Office:                          217 Physical Sciences

Phone:                          766-5402

E-mail:                 (best way to contact me)

Websites:              (course materials here!) (see handout about registering – course is          ASTR1050FALL10 on the website, zip code is 82071) (science fiction astronomy stories)

Office Hours:                  M 1-2PM, W 2 PM to 4 PM, or by appointment

Lectures:                        MWF Noon to 12:50pm CR 133

Text:                                         Cosmic Perspectives, Bennet et al, 6th Edition


Course Content

Astronomy is the study of everything beyond the Earth, the entire universe in fact!  Topics will include the sky, planets, stars, galaxies, and more.  We won't just take census of the amazing things in the universe; understanding how we know what we know is equally important.  Science is the most powerful method of deriving new knowledge ever developed, and understanding science is key to understanding our increasingly complex, technologically driven civilization.  Science often relies on math, and astronomy is no exception, although we won't overdo it.  We will use simple geometry, trigonometry, and algebra and useful math tools like logarithms and scientific notation.  We'll only pull out the math when we need it, and we'll spend whatever time it takes to make its application clear.  I sincerely hope you all complete the course with a deeper sense of wonder about the universe and an appreciation for the science that has revealed that wonder.



Attendance at lecture is strongly encouraged, but not mandatory.  It’s smart to do the assigned reading before class -- this will make lecture easier to follow and lead to better questions.  The lectures will not necessarily cover all the topics in the reading and should not be viewed as a substitute for the reading.  Lecture slides can be found on the course webpage -- you may wish to print these before class (powerpoint).  Lectures are an opportunity to address more challenging concepts and to explore material beyond the text.  Please bring questions to class and be prepared to discuss concepts.  Please also bring a scientific calculator to class (which should have at least a "log" button and support scientific notation, but does not have to be expensive or fancy).  We will sometimes work problems in class to make sure everyone is getting it.



Attendance at lab is required.  Shaun and Mike are your dedicated lab instructors and will have their own lab syllabus.  Lab meets for the first time NEXT week (no lab the first or third [Labor Day] week of classes).  A few labs (one required, probably plus an additional optional one) will involve nighttime observing with a telescope and you will be able to sign up for a night of the week that will work for you. 



In addition to the reading, approximately weekly homework assignments will be posted on-line on the website.  The procedures for self-registration are explained in a document I am handing out and also available on the course website.  Not doing the homework WILL hurt your grade!



There will be three in-class exams during the semester, and no final exam.  While the exams will not be comprehensive in general, the material in the course does build on itself and several topics reappear in different forms.  Each in-class exam will cover several chapters of material and consist of multiple choice problems.  The exams will be closed-book, but formulas and physical constants will be provided and need not be memorized.  Exam dates will be confirmed in class and the website well in advance, and will most likely be Sep. 20, Oct. 24, and the last day of class (not comprehensive).  Focus on your major courses during finals week.


Extra Credit

There will be chances for extra credit this semester.  These will be announced in class and on the course website and will include things like reporting on astronomy stories, fictional and non-fictional at various times during the semester. There may be other extra credit opportunities announced as well (usually seeing a Planetarium show will count).



The grading scheme will be:

A = 90-100%

B = 80-90%

C = 70-80%

D = 60-70%

F < 60%

I tend to round up, and I reserve the right to adjust the scheme in your favor if the score distributions are lower than expected (for instance, exams are normally curved).  You will not automatically fail the course for missing lab, but if two or more labs are missed you will lose a letter grade.  There will be a chance to make-up a lab the last week of classes if necessary.  People tend to get high scores on the homework and labs, do a lot of extra credit, and wind up with very good grades despite lower exam scores.  The components of the course are weighted:

            Laboratory                   = 25%

            Exams                          = 60%

            Quizzes/Homework      = 15%


Special Accommodations

If you have a physical, learning, or psychological disability and require accommodations, please let me know as soon as possible.  You will need to register with, and provide documentation of your disability to, University Disability Support Services (UDSS) in SEO, room 330 Knight Hall, 766-6189, TTY: 766-3073


About Me

I am an observational astronomer specializing in the study of quasars and other types of active galaxies thought to be powered by super-massive black holes.  I received my PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and have previously worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Kitt Peak National Observatory.  I've really used the Very Large Array (the "VLA", a radio telescope in New Mexico featured in the movie Contact), the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and many other telescopes, so I can provide you with first-hand details not found in textbooks.  I'm also a science fiction writer — my first novel Star Dragon (Tor Books) is about an expedition to a distant binary star system.  The paperback is available now, and the full text can also be downloaded for free from  The second, Spider Star, is available in hardback from and other places.


I love astronomy and look forward to sharing the wonders of the universe with you!









Course Schedule and Reading Assignments (subject to change)

Week     Dates                 Topics                                                   Textbook Reading

1          Aug 23, 25, 27   Scales, Seasons, Moon                             Ch. 1, 2

2                      Aug 30, Sep 1, 3 Seasons, Moon, History of Astronomy        Ch. 2, 3

3          Sep 8, 10           Motion, Energy, Gravity                           Ch. 3, 4

4          Sep. 13, 15, 17   Light & Matter, Telescopes                       Ch. 5, 6

Sep. 20              Exam 1, chapters 1-6

5          Sep 22, 24         Planetary System                                     Ch. 7

6          Sep 27, 29, Oct 1            Solar System Formation, Earth+                Ch. 8, 9

7          Oct 4, 6, 8         Atmospheres, Earth+                                Ch. 9, 10

8          Oct 11, 13, 15    Jovian Planets, Debris                              Ch. 10, 12

9          Oct 18, 20, 22    Exoplanets, the sun                                  Ch. 13, 14

Oct 25               Exam 2, chapters 7-14                             

10         Oct 27, 29          Surveying stars                                       Ch. 15

11         Nov 1, 3, 5        Star birth, star stuff                                  Ch. 16, 17

12         Nov 8, 10, 12     Star stuff, stellar end states                        Ch. 17, 18

13         Nov 15, 17, 19   Our galaxy, galaxies                                 Ch. 19, 20

14         Nov 22              Galaxies, cosmology, evolution                 Ch 20, 21

15         Nov 29, Dec 1    Galaxy evolution, dark stuff, big bang         Ch 22-23(?)

            Dec 3                Exam chapters 15-23


I may be absent for research-related reasons a few times this semester (probably early October, for instance). There will be a substitute lecturer on these days.


There are a lot of special topics and supplemental materials in the textbook and online, that we probably don’t have time to cover in a single semester course.  Please feel encouraged to read more if you have the time and interest.  For instance, I’d love to talk about the spaceships in Chapter 24, but we’d only get there by blazing through other more fundamental topics.