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Haverford College
Departments of Physics and Astronomy

Astronomy 342 - Advanced Topics in Astrophysics: Modern Galactic Astronomy

Instructor: Professor Beth Willman
Office: Strawbridge Observatory, 896-1201 (office hours to be announced)


Galaxies in the Universe (2nd edition) by Sparke and Gallagher - the first few chapters. We will also use sections and chapters from a handful of other books, combined with papers from recent literature. The official textbook, and some other supplementary textbooks, are held on reserve in the South wall of the Astronomy library.


Astronomy 205 and 206. See instructor if you have any questions.

Course Description:

Astronomy 342, Modern Galactic Astronomy, focuses topically on a global view of the Milky Way as a galaxy and on untangling its formation history. Although just one galaxy of billions in the Universe, the singular detail with which only the Milky Way can be studied makes it the necessary stepping stone to interpret and understand observations of galaxies throughout the Universe. This field lies at the intersection of stellar astronomy, extragalactic astronomy, and cosmology - making this an appropriate course for upper-level physics/astro students with a range of interests.

After we investigate and apply several approaches to mapping our Galaxy, we will question whether the picture painted by the panoply of existing Milky Way observations makes sense within the current paradigm of structure formation in the Universe. This class will emphasize the Galactic science that can be done with current and future generations of large astronomical surveys, such as SDSS, GAIA, and LSST. Coursework will rely heavily on the use of programming to tackle research-like problems.

The primary goals of this class are: i) to teach you about our Galaxy, with emphasis on exciting recent developments and ii) to make you better scientists. To achieve these goals, you will develop expertise in publically available tools and quantitative methods, and apply these tools to a phenomenological study of the Milky Way that is similar to the approach used by astronomers today. The cornerstone of your work in this course will be an in-depth research project. 

Assignments, Quizzes, and Exams:

35% - Project sets; there will be four. Late work is docked 10% per late day. These will sometimes be due Tuesday and sometimes Thursday, but always at the beginning of class.

30% - Individual research project, write-up plus lightning presentation. The project write-up is due at Noon on the Friday of finals week.

15% - Class participation. Class participation is broadly defined. Half of your participation grade will come from a class debate to be held during class in November. The debate will be on the topic "Is the Milky Way typical? And does the answer to that question matter?"

20% - Test. A single test will be given 9 weeks into the course, at the end of the lecture component.


Class attendance is mandatory. A lot of the material covered in lectures won't be from a textbook. A significant amount of learning will take place in the classroom from the discussions and collaborative exercises that you will engage in. All of us have things to teach and to learn from each other, so we all miss out when one student is absent. That said - if you are sick, please rest instead of coming to class. However, an unexcused absence will result in direct deduction from your participation grade.

Tentative Course Outline:

Topic Reading
Week 1 Milky Way basics and SDSS workshop
Week 2 Stellar Populations
Week 3 Mapping the Milky Way in 3D
Week 4 Mapping the Milky Way in >3D
Week 5 Chemical Evolution
Week 6 Galactic Dynamics
--- Fall Break ---------------------
Week 7 Galactic Bulge
Week 8 Galactic Gas
Week 9 Milky Way in a Cosmological Context
Week 10 Class Debate
Week 11 Projects
Week 12 Projects/Thanksgiving
Week 13 Projects
Week 14 Projects and presentations