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ASTR 101 – Fall 2013
Course Syllabus

This is a one-semester overview of astronomy, offered at the University of Mississippi mainly for non-science majors. It does not have a lab component (the courses with lab are Astr 103 and 104), but it does provide some opportunities for observations with telescopes.

Course Description - Goals - Policies - Evaluation - Study Tips


book cover

Instructor: Dr Luca Bombelli

E-mail: bombelli at
Office: Lewis Hall 105
Office hours: W 9:00-11:00 am, or by appointment
Phone: (662) 915-5319; Fax: (662) 915-5045

Lecture: 101 Lewis Hall,
MW 7:00-7:50 pm and F 12:00–12:50 pm

Recommended Text:
Jeffrey Bennett et al., The Essential Cosmic Perspective, 6th ed., Addison-Wesley 2012

Required: Top Hat student response system,
available at


Lecture: This course is an overview of our current understanding of the universe, and can be divided in four parts. (1) We start with an overview of some of the main observational facts on the sky and the most important stages in the history of astronomy, and discuss a few physics concepts that are often used in astronomy, like the force of gravity, light and radiation, and how telescopes work. (2) We then study in more detail the Sun and the Solar System, including our Moon, the other planets and their satellites, smaller objects such as asteroids and comets, and the formation of the Solar System. (3) In the third part we discuss other stars and objects in our Milky Way galaxy, their classification and how they form and evolve. (4) We conclude with an overview of other galaxies and the evolution of the universe as a whole. Current astronomy news and highlights of the summer and Fall sky will also be discussed on a regular basis.

A number of astronomical facts will be discussed in the course, and students will be expected to learn the main ones, as well as get a feeling for the length and time scales involved in astronomical phenomena. However, this is not a memorization course, and it will try to present science as an activity in which one figures things out, a way of looking at the universe rather than a set of facts to remember. In the long run, understanding the connections between facts is more important than knowing the facts themselves. Students will be tested on their understanding of those connections both in class, with questions that require some amount of reasoning, and on homework and tests, with questions that also ask for short explanations.


Grading Scheme

In-class Questions ... 15 %
Homework ............. 10 %
Test 1 ............... 15 %
Test 2 ............... 15 %
Test 3 ............... 15 %
Final Exam ........... 30 %

Attendance: Attendance is not mandatory, but graded questions will be asked during most classes after the first week. To be counted as present, students need to scan their IDs at the beginning of each class, and stay until the end of that class.

Observations: Occasionally, there will be opportunities to observe astronomical objects in the evening, through binoculars or a telescope. Details will be announced in class.

Homework Assignments: Homework will be occasionally assigned, and will consist in questions on concepts covered in class or related to observations, to be answered in writing. Homework must written in a readable handwriting on sheets with straight, smooth edges (not like this); it will be graded mostly on content, but also on English grammar and presentation.

Midterm Tests: There will be three midterms, consisting of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Students will have a full lecture period to complete each midterm, and will not be allowed to leave the room during the first 15 minutes or start the test after that time. A missed test can be made up if the absence is justified. Students are responsible for keeping graded, returned tests.

Final Exam: The format of the final exam will be similar to that of the midterm tests, but longer. It will have one part focusing on the last part of the course (the material covered after Test 3), and one comprehensive part on selected topics taken from the previous material. Students will have two hours to complete the final, and will not be allowed to leave the room during the first 30 minutes, or start the test after that time.

Class behavior: In class, I expect students not to do things that distract other students and/or the instructor, such as talking with their neighbors, text messaging other than when answering a class-related question or browsing the web, or reading a newspaper during the lecture.


Justified absences: All justifications must be turned in on paper (not just shown to me).

Honesty: Students who are caught cheating in any way will have their overall average score for the course lowered, by an amount dependent on how serious the cheating was. This includes for example copying copying homework, obtaining in any way answers from another person during tests, or having another person submit tests in one's name.

Note: If a change in the class policies became necessary during the semester, it would be posted on this website and discussed in class before being implemented.

Tips on
for Tests

In preparation for a test or final exam, I recommend studying:
(1) Assigned sections in the book (see the lecture schedule and the individual lecture pages); you don't need to know the proper names (people, places, stars, and the like) and numbers that I didn't mention in class, but you do need to be familiar with all the concepts in those sections; (2) The lecture notes posted online; they are a good summary, from which you can see which parts of the material I emphasize most, but they are not detailed enough for you to only study those.

Once you are familiar with the material, you can test yourself with posted tests from previous years (a few of the questions will probably appear again this year, and the other ones are good practice anyway), and with the practice questions at the end of each chapter. However, do not rely just on practice questions and past tests! Memorizing the material is a bad way to study; if you want to do well, make sure you know what each of the concepts we talked about means, and that you are comfortable with all the explanations, so that you can answer questions about them that you might not have seen before.

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page by luca bombelli <bombelli at>, modified 18 sep 2013