Spring 2009


INSTRUCTOR: Ms. Megan Kathleen Pickett
OFFICE: 105 Youngchild
SPRING TERM OFFICE HOURS: M 2:00-3:00; TWR 9:30-10:30, or by appointment
PHONE: (920) 993-6269

CLASS TIMES: MWF 11:10-12:20
CLASS ROOM: 121 Youngchild

Welcome to PHYSICS 110: Topics in Astronomy! This term we will focus primarily on the major objects in our Solar System: planets, moons, asteroids, comets, rings, as well as the formation of our own and other Solar Systems. We will also cover the fundamental principles and methods of astronomy. Astronomy is an exciting subject in which new discoveries are constantly being made. This course is an opportunity for students to share in the excitement of discovering more about our physical universe, and I hope it will form the basis of a lifelong interest in astronomy.

My goals for the term are that:

  1. students will learn and appreciate the nature, scale, and constituents of the Solar System;
  2. students will learn how scientists make observations of celestial phenomena, and how they use basic principles of physics to deduce the physical processes involved; and
  3. the course will foster open, honest, and critical inquiry inside and outside the lecture.

The last of these goals is perhaps the most important. One of the key ingredients to scientific exploration is skepticism. Note that there is a fine line between healthy skepticism (which is useful in science) and cynicism (which is not). I believe that you will get more out of this class if you understand the reasons behind the numbers. Therefore, I have designed this course such that understanding the important themes, concepts, and principles of astronomy are emphasized over just memorizing astronomical data (of which there is an abundance). If something seems wrong or confusing, or there seems to be little justification for an assertion made in lecture, I encourage you to call me on it! Without open and critical inquiry, science simply could not progress. The following quote from one of my heroes best summarizes my teaching philosophy:

"Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

-Hypatia of Alexandria

The other quote that pretty much sums up my philosophy is:

"Pluto is an icy ball of crap."


But then we'll get to that soon enough.

TEXT: Astronomy (A Beginner's Guide to the Universe), 5th Edition, Chaisson and McMillan, Prentice Hall, 2007. Please do not use a different edition, as the questions on the homeworks may differ from those assigned.

COURSE LEVEL AND PREREQUISITES: Astronomy is a modern, quantitative science, and as such, quantitative reasoning will be used frequently in this class. Mathematics is often just the most elegant language with which to express a physical relation. My own feeling is that the meaning behind a mathematical relation can be as important as the expression itself, and so I work a great deal to include conceptual understanding in my introductory classes as well.

Since this course will allow you to satisfy the quantitative competency skill requirement, there will be a significant emphasis on problem solving. There are no college mathematics prerequisites for the course although familiarity with high school algebra is necessary for some of the exercises. You should be comfortable with graphs as well the trigonometric, exponential and logarithm functions. Since many conclusions are drawn by comparing the properties of know objects to unknown objects, ratio techniques are especially helpful.

I will supply a mathematics help sheet at the beginning of the term as a guide. There will also be weekly help/review sessions conducted by myself and staff from the CTL. These review sessions will be for an hour, probably on Sunday nights. Details will be available in class.

READINGS: I expect you to read through the assigned reading prior to class. This will enhance your learning and make our class time more useful.

READING QUIZZES: About every class meeting or so you will be given a very short (2-3 questions) reading quiz in class. The quiz will take place at the beginning of lecture, after any announcements for the day, and will take five minutes to complete. Each quiz will be based on the assigned reading FOR THAT DAY (SEE CLASS SCHEDULE). It is not my intention for these quizzes to be difficult; rather, I offer them as incentive to keep up to date with the text, as well as a way to monitor attendance. Your lowest quiz will be dropped. I will drop a second quiz if you come to my office hours at least once during the term to ask a class-related question. Sweet!

NOTE WELL: Quizzes are given at the beginning of lecture. NO LATE QUIZZES WILL BE ACCEPTED.

ASSIGNMENTS: There will be six homework assignments, which will be collected and graded. The assignment due dates are listed on the course schedule. Each homework assignment is due at the beginning of lecture on the day listed. Late assignments will not be accepted; I will provide detailed solutions to the homework after the work is turned in. Most of the homework will be derived from problems in your textbook.

MY DEAL FOR YOU: If you turn in all 6 assignments, and make an honest attempt to answer each question, then I will drop your lowest homework score. I will NOT drop your lowest HW score if you miss an assignment or do not adequately show your work or reasoning on a problem.

Let me repeat that: you need to attempt EVERY question on EVERY assignment to be eligible for the dropped homework score.

PROJECTS: There will be 4-5 very short "projects" during the course of the term. The projects are a chance for you to conduct observations. Some of these will occur during class, others throughout the term outside class hours. I will provide details in class. The due dates for the projects are listed in the class schedule.

CONCEPTESTS: "ConcepTests" are conceptual exercises during the lecture. The goal is to encourage interaction between students as well as between lecturer and student. Your answers to these are not graded, but many of my past students have found these exercises invaluable to understanding course material. We will be using "student response systems," i.e., "clickers"--and the feedback from previous classes has been overwhelmingly positive. It's just too cool! I will discuss these in more detail during the first lecture.

MIDTERM AND FINAL: There will be one midterm and a final in this course. Each exam will consist of a combination of short answer and multiple choice questions. Much of the exam questions will be based on homework, reading quiz, and ConcepTest questions.

The final examination will be cumulative, while emphasizing material covered since the midterm. The cumulative section of the final will be based on the questions in the midterm that gave the class the most difficulty. I design the final in such a way in order to reduce the amount you need to study at the end of the year as well as offer the class a chance at showing me that it has mastered problems that caused difficulties earlier. I shall provide a small sample of test questions I have used in the past. Note: solutions to these questions will not be posted. You may check with me during office hours if you have questions.

All exams are closed book and closed notes, although each exam will include a list of useful (and not particularly useful) formulae. You will therefore not need to memorize equations, but you will have to be able to recognize which formula is appropriate and what it means (see above). You may also bring a calculator, but I do try to write exams so that they are not strictly necessary. Any device you use as calclator must not connect with the internet or store data. I know the iPhone is cool, but don't use it as a calculator here.

Your Final is scheduled for MONDAY, JUNE 8, 1:30pm.


Reading Quiz Average


Homework Average


Project Average




Final Exam


Total Grade


Grades will be curved. At a minimum, I will guarantee the usual curve, i.e. A = 100-90%, B = 89-80%, C = 79-70%, D = 69-60%, F = 59% and lower. The average score in the course usually determines the lowest B grade. For example, if the course average is 75%, then the C's will run from 65% to 74%; B's will run from 75% to 84%, and the lowest A would be an 85%. If, on the other hand, the class average is a 94%, I will use the standard curve (C's run from 70 to 79%, and so on).

I will maintain a running estimated course grade for each student throughout the term, updated weekly. You should always have a fairly good idea of where you stand in class.

SO HOW DO I GET AN A? The best way that you can do well in the course is to come to lecture regularly and be actively engaged. This includes the usual note taking, as well as keeping up with the reading and actively participating in the ConcepTests. I cannot stress enough how important the reading quizzes, ConcepTests, and assignments will be as study aids for each of the exams. As much as 70% (sometimes more) of the exam questions will be based, sometimes word-for-word, on these three components of your grade. In fact, there is historically a direct and striking correlation between a student's quiz and homework average and how well that student does in the exams. The rest of the exam questions will be based on the lecture notes, projects, and reading, basically in that order.

Finally, if you need help, please feel absolutely free to contact me in any way that is convenient. I have plenty of office hours, and I am always willing to set aside separate times if those are inconvenient. You may also call or email me with any question. Do not wait until it is too late. I'm here to help.

ATTENDANCE & MAKE-UP POLICY: Attendance is extremely important in this and all classes, given the 10 week pace of the term, and the extensive ground we will cover in that time. I expect you to come to all lectures. Attendance will be measured informally by the reading quizzes and my preternatural ability to remember names and faces. If you must miss a class, make sure you speak to me.

All assignments and projects are due on the day given in the class schedule. A makeup midterm will be possible ONLY if I am notified prior to the exam and I approve the excuse.

ACADEMIC DISHONESTY: Academic dishonesty of any sort will not be tolerated. All material must include the Honor Pledge and a signature for a grade to be given.

ADA AND ANTIDISCRIMINATION STATEMENTS: In compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), all qualified students enrolled in this course are entitled to reasonable accommodations. It is your responsibility to inform me of any special needs you may need before the end of the second week of classes. I also believe firmly in the right for each student to be respected, both by a student's peers and by his or her instructor. I am therefore strongly committed to ensuring that the antidiscrimination policy established at Lawrence will be honored in my class.

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