ASTR 10, Descriptive Astronomy (V0076)

Vista Community College, Berkeley, California
Spring Semester, 2004

Instructors: Dr. Korpela
Office Hours: By appointment
Phone: 510-643-6538
Lectures: Thursdays, 6:30 to 9:30 PM
  102 Moffitt Hall, UC Berkeley Campus

COURSE GOALS: Gain an appreciation of our place in the universe, and encourage a sense of awe about the night sky as well as topics in modern astrophysics. Understand what science is and is not, with particular attention to the scientific method as it applies to astronomy. Develop critical thinking and reasoning skills that can be applied to popular science literature.

INTRODUCTION: This course provides an introductory look at the past, present, and future of the universe and its contents: stars, planets, galaxies, and we humans who seek to understand them. Astronomy has repeatedly challenged human thought, from the Copernican revolution to the recent discovery that the universe may be not only expanding, but also accelerating. Spacecraft have visited all of the planets except Pluto, and powerful telescopes take us even farther out in space and back in time. Through this course, I hope that you will gain some sense of the excitement that astronomers feel when they study the sky. Before long, you will be able to amaze your friends with the real story on black holes, the Big Bang, and the search for extraterrestrial life.

While astronomy originated as a largely descriptive science, it has evolved into one whose myriad phenomena can be understood with a surprisingly small set of tools. In this class, we will discuss the simple but important physical principles that astronomers have used to develop a unified description of the cosmos. We apply these tools to understanding the planets, the sun, the stars and their sometimes violent births and deaths, galaxies and the clusters and superclusters of galaxies that form the largest known structures in the universe, and finally cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, its origin, and its ultimate fate. At the end of the semester we will consider the possibility of life on other worlds.

Prerequisites: None, but a knowledge of elementary algebra will be helpful.

Textbook: Jeffery Bennett et al., The Essential Cosmic Perspective , 2nd College Edition, available from Ned's Campus Textbook Exchange on Bancroft Avenue. You should be aware that you may find less expensive texts on line at Barnes and Noble or


A general rule of thumb for college classes is that you should expect to study 2-3 hours per week outside class for each hour of class time. Based on that rule, you should expect to work on this class for 6-9 hours per week in addition to our weekly meetings. This is meant as a guideline only. Some students may require more or less time.

The class meets only once per week, so each class will cover a hefty amount of material. Don't leave the reading/homework until the last minute, and try not to get discouraged by the pace. The first few weeks are likely to be the most difficult, as we lay a foundation for what is to come.

Astronomy is the application of math and physics to space phenomena, and as such some basic math and physics skills will be required. Don't let this scare you! The level of math will be kept simple, and the necessary material will be covered. And it won't take you long to realize why an understanding of scientific notation is essential when dealing with astronomical numbers.

Try not to fall behind. It is important that you stay on top of the material as best you can. You can influence both the pace and material covered in class by participating. Ask questions frequently, even if you think everyone else has already learned it. Chances are good that you're not alone!


Reading: If this were a literature course, we would not discuss, for example, Maya Angelou's poetry without first reading Maya Angelou's poetry. Similarly, I will ask you to prepare for each week's class by reading the appropriate chapters in the book. I will try to give you guidelines on the most important aspects of each chapter along with the reading assignments.

Homework: There will be homework assignments every 2 or 3 lectures, to help solidify your understanding of what you have read, and what you have learned in class. These will help you identify and focus on the material I consider to be the most important from each lecture. These assignments will total 20% of your final grade.

Class Exercises and Quizzes: I will not spend the 3 hour lecture time repeating exactly what is in the text. We will try to discuss the most important/interesting aspects of each chapter, and I will often give additional information to supplement the text. Since a three hour lecture would bore all of us, you will also be asked to engage in group exercises to help with some of the difficult concepts. Some of these will be graded. In order for me to assess your understanding of the material, some classes will begin with a short (5 min) quiz on material covered the previous week, along with a question or two from the reading. Most classes will contain either a graded exercise or a quiz, and the combination of these will total 15% of your final grade. The quizzes and in-class exercises will also help you to identify key points to help you study for the exams.

Labs and Projects: You will also be required to complete 3 laboratory exercises or small projects outside of class. These will help develop your critical thinking skills and extend your understanding of the scientific method. These will total 20% of your final grade.

Exams There will be 3 exams, each worth 15%. The exams will not be cumulative; however some concepts may apply to more than one section of the course.


Quizzes/class exercises: 15%
Homework assignments: 20%
Laboratory Exercises/Small Projects: 20%
Exams: 3 x 15% = 45%


Lecture Date Chapter(s) Topic
1 Jan. 15 1 Scale of the Universe and Our Place
2 Jan. 22 2 The Night Sky & Its Motions
3 Jan. 29 3 The Nature of Science & the History of Astronomy
4 Feb. 05 4 & 5 Scientific Models and the Physics of Motion
5 Feb. 12 6 Information from Distant Objects
  Feb. 19 NO CLASS: Staff Development Day
6 Feb. 26 7 Formation of the Solar System
Mar. 04 1-6 EXAM 1: Science, Night Sky, Tools
      Guest Lecture
7 Mar. 11 8 & 9 Properties of the Planets
8 Mar. 18 10 & 11 Asteriod, Comets, Meteors & Life in the Universe
9 Mar. 25 12 & 13 The Sun and Other Stars
10 Apr. 01 13 & 14 Birth and Death of Stars
  Apr. 15 7-13 EXAM 2: The Solar System and the Properties of Stars
      Guest Lecture
11 Apr. 22 15 White Dwarfs, Neutron Stars & Black Holes
12 Apr. 29 16 Our Galaxy
13 May 06 17 Galaxies and Galaxy Clusters
14 May 13 18 & 19 Cosmology
15 May 20 20 Interstellar Travel and SETI
  May 27 13-20 EXAM 3: Stellar Remnants, Extragalactic Astronomy and Intelligent Life
      Course Evaluation

Jan 26: Last day to add classes
Feb 12: Last day to drop without "W"
Mar 12: Last day to File AA/AS Degree
Apr 26: Last day to Withdraw and receive a grade of "W"

FINAL THOUGHT: This may be the only science class that you take while in college. Do not be alarmed. The course will be challenging, but also a lot of fun. The emphasis is not on memorizing facts, but on understanding our place in the universe and (equally important) how we have learned the things we know. Science isn't about facts; rather, it's a way of learning and knowing about nature. As future voters, financiers, teachers, elected officials, and business leaders, you need to understand how science works, what it can tell us about the world--and what it cannot.