Course: AST304
Instructor: Ostriker
S 2015

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

Content is grouped thematically. For example, star birth, star structure, star development, and star death are all taught in sequential lectures. The entire course starts locally and ends with the universe. However, there is a lot of distinct material to keep track of. With this structure, students are exposed to the basics of every topic. If any particular topic seems fascinating, there is enough depth behind to leave students feeling they learned something substantial.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

The textbook provided a lot of depth, especially mathematical. The lectures present similar material, but in less depth and with more applications. The topics covered in readings and lectures do not completely overlap: some lecture material is absent from or only minimally found in the textbook, and vice versa. The more that you can remember intuitively from classroom instruction, as opposed to by rote memorization, the easier it will be to retain knowledge. The textbook is designed to give you the most thorough and rigorous understanding of the material, but it’s also really big and full of way more details than is generally necessary. Lectures are meant to reinforce the textbook material and expand on certain aspects not covered in the textbook. Lecture slides are posted online after lecture, because there is often too much information to properly absorb. This is especially true of mathematical derivations: they are challenging to fully comprehend when presented in lecture. If a derivation is important or interesting, you can go back to slides after lecture and try to follow and understand it. One approach would be to skim relevant chapters before lecture. In lecture, take note of concepts that are emphasized in both the book and the lecture as these tend to be important. Taking notes to supplement the lecture slides prompts greater focus and understanding during lecture. The lecture is most constructive viewed coherently and interconnectedly, which is difficult to do when you’re jotting everything down. Lectures often include application exercises towards the end, where an equation learned in that lecture is applied to an actual problem. Taking these seriously and thinking about the concept behind them, instead of simply just a plug-and-chug (which they often are) will make them more bearable and can even make them useful exercises to get you to understand the concept more intuitively.

Learning For and From Assignments

This course can be done without reading the textbook and by only going to lecture. However, because any individual topic can often go by fast in lecture, the textbook is extremely useful for reinforcing concepts and preparing for the exams. Also many homework problems require equations that come from the textbook rather than lecture. The goal of the psets is to get you to understand the concepts through application, which is most effective when you are already familiar with the theory of the concept from reading or lecture. Frequently the psets will draw from concepts or equations not directly covered in lecture, so they are conducive to expanding your field of knowledge. Some questions are very foundational and asks you to apply an equation; others, however, require you to connect multiple equations and concepts. When stuck on a question, a useful approach is to find a relevant equation that includes the final answer, and to work backwards from the answer. Sometimes the textbook that introduces that equation will provide hints on interconnected equations, so referencing back to the book is extremely useful. Sometimes, there are very non-obvious or elusive ways that problems need to be tackled, and as such, the psets should be started 2-4 days before the due date so that you have time to talk with classmates, go to office hours, or go to the weekly problem sessions to get your questions answered. Attempting the psets alone, and then meeting up with a classmate to discuss tricky concepts or to check answers is a useful strategy to consolidate understanding of the concept and also to provide a support system if something stumps you. The exams are tricky because they require a certain amount of memorization. There are many concepts and equations introduced throughout the semester, and you are expected to know some “basic” ones by memory on the test. However, the level of what “basic equations” are is not always clear. A general guideline is that if an equation has many terms, it’s probably not one that you can be expected to memorize; if it only has 4 variables, and it was used multiple times in either lecture, book, or homework, it’s probably useful to know. There is also a section of the exam that asks conceptual questions, and so remembering a little about everything will allow you to be able to answer a greater breadth of questions. Use lecture notes to obtain a big-picture perspective. These will help you remember more concepts and topics, which is often more important than understanding any one in depth. The practice test is useful to give you a feel for the structure and format of the test, but be careful not to assume that the topics explicitly covered on the practice test are the same: the challenge of the tests is that the potential material they can cover is so broad, but the material they will actually cover, for time constraints, is limited.

External Resources

In general external resources are unnecessary. Keeping informed about astrophysics news can be interesting and provide a cool connection to class, or get you to think about a concept you learned applied to real research, but is not necessary.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

This course seeks to give students with no previous background an exposure to a wide variety of basic astrophysical concepts. Having some prior understanding and knowledge of the universe will help, and being comfortable with algebraic manipulations and calculus are necessary to follow the math. An understanding of Newtonian mechanics is assumed, as is evidenced by the PHY 103 prerequisite.
Topics in Modern Astronomy

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