Ph 109: Astronomy and Cosmology - Fall 2017
Solar Systems: Past and Present

Rutgers University Department of Physics and Astronomy

Summary Information:

Professor: Dr. Tad Pryor, Physics & Astronomy Bldg, Room 302W, 848-445-8873
Time: W3 (Wed, 11:30-12:50), F4 (Fri, 1:10-2:30)
Location: Scott Hall 123
Office Hour: Friday, 2:50 - 4:10 PM (call or email to arrange other times)
Text: The Cosmic Perspective: Fundamentals, 2nd edition by Bennett et al. (Addison-Wesley, ISBN 978-0-13-388956-7)
Sakai: Astronomy 109 F17 Pryor

More Detailed Information:

Course Description Lecture Schedule
Sakai Text
Homework i>Clickers
Examinations Grades
Public Observing Astronomy Websites
Study Groups Interactive Demos
Students with Disabilities  

Figure: A picture of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft that shows approximately how the planet would appear to the human eye. The rings, seen edge-on, are the thin horizontal line in the middle of the image. They cast their shadows on the northern (upper) hemisphere of the planet. The small black dot seen just above the ring plane is the silhouette of the moon Enceledus, which is about 500 km across. Note the subtle colors and bands created by clouds in Saturn's atmosphere. Some more details are discussed in this Astronomy Picture of the Day post. Cassini ended its 13-year long survey of the Saturnian system by plunging into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15th.

Course Description

This course focuses on the historical foundations of astronomy and on our own and other solar systems. The study of phenomena in the sky led to an increasingly detailed picture of the universe and to the development of science as we know it. Astronomers today have a detailed knowledge of the planets, moons, and minor bodies orbiting our Sun and are beginning to discover those around other stars. They understand the broad outlines of how these structures form and can point to where life might exist elsewhere in our solar system. Science is not just a static body of facts, but also the process by which those facts are discovered and then arranged into coherent models. We will use this process to help avoid being buried in the avalanche of facts discovered in the last 100 years.

There are no college-level prerequisites for this course, but typical high school algebra and science preparation are assumed. The companion course, Ph 110 (taught this semester by Prof. Jha), covers the structure and evolution of stars, the properties of galaxies, and the past, present, and future of the Universe. The two courses are complementary and independent; you can take one or both, and in either order. Note that Ph 109/110 are intended for non-science majors. Students with college-level math and science credits should consider taking Ph 341/342 instead. These courses cover much of the same material as Ph 109/110, but at a more advanced level.


The Sakai site for this course is Astronomy 109 F17 Pryor. All homework assignments, powerpoint slides, practice exams, scores, and important information about the course will be posted on the Sakai site, so check it regularly. It is also a good place to submit questions about course material or logistics.


The textbook for both Ph 109 and 110 is The Cosmic Perspective: Fundamentals, 2nd edition by Bennett et al. (Addison-Wesley, ISBN 978-0-13-388956-7). Our class covers the first 7 chapters and parts of chapter 15, while Ph 110 covers the rest. The textbook is available at the Rutgers Bookstores, New Jersey Books, or on-line. The first edition of the book (from 2009) is not too different and you should be able to do OK with it.

The textbook is compact, clear, and (reasonably) up-to-date. You are responsible only for reading the sections given on the lecture schedule, though those with a strong interest in astronomy should be able to enjoy the whole book. Lectures will be more accessible if you have read the appropriate part of the book before class. A few equations are included in the text. You will not be asked to perform calculations more complex than simple proportionalities in this class.


We will use the i>Clicker classroom response system for in-class activities and quizzes. You need to buy either the original i>clicker, i>clicker+, or the second-generation i>clicker 2; we will not use any of the new features. Once you acquire your i>clicker, you should register it through Sakai, using the "i>licker" tab on the left-hand side of your "My Workspace".

You get partial credit for any answer to an i>clicker question, whether correct or incorrect, and full credit for the correct answer. I will average the scores if there is more than one question in a lecture and will drop the lowest 5 of your daily averages in calculating your grade.


Homework will be assigned, done, and graded weekly using Sakai. Homework sets are due Wednesday nights (5 AM Thursday) on the dates given in the syllabus (first date: September 13). They will become available a week before they are due and scores and correct answers will become available immediately after the deadline passes. No late homework submissions will be accepted. However, I will drop the lowest two out of the 12 homeworks when calculating your grade.

It can be beneficial to discuss homework questions with your fellow students, but your submitted answers must be your own. Simply asking a classmate for the answer to a problem is exploitation, not discussion. Representing someone else's work as your own is a serious infringement of academic integrity that is reportable to your College Dean.


There will be a midterm and a final exam. The midterm will be held in place of class in Scott Hall 123 on Wednesday, October 25. The final will be Tuesday, December 19, 9:30-11:00 AM in Scott Hall 135. There will be make-up midterm and final exams for those who have an excused absence. Both exams will be multiple choice, computer graded, and closed book/laptop/phone. Material from the text, lectures, homework assignments, and quizes will be used in selecting exam questions. You must bring a photo ID and a pencil to the exams.


Your course grade will be determined by: midterm -- 30%, final -- 30%, homework -- 30%, and your in-class i>clicker responses -- 10%. As it is easier to obtain a high score for the homework, it is impossible to get a good overall grade without a good homework score. Extra-credit can be achieved by attending a study group, as described below.

Study Groups:

We are fortunate to have an undergraduate learning assistant (Melissa Stept) available for this course, who will lead two weekly study groups:

Study Groups offer an opportunity for like-minded, serious students to summarize the week's material and clear up any confusion. Active participation in a study group will help you understand the concepts of the course, which you can then apply to completing your homework and answering questions on exams. The learning assistant, who took and did well in this course in a previous year and meets regularly with me, is your greatest ally in helping you master its subject matter. The philosophy of these groups and a description of how to sign up are given in this flyer.

Attendance and active participation in study groups will also allow students to gain extra credit. If you sign up at the beginning of the semester, then for each weekly session attended you will get an extra +1 point, and if you participate actively (ask and answer questions, draw a diagram of an astronomical phenomenon like a lunar phase or a solar eclipse, etc.) then you will get a total of +2 points. Each 10 points earned this way will replace your lowest remaining homework score with a perfect score. (For students whose schedules prevent them from attending any of the weekly study groups, I am willing to give equivalent extra credit on the basis of active engagement in my weekly office hour.)

Students with Disabilities:

If you have a disability, it is essential that you speak to Professor Pryor early in the semester to make the necessary arrangements to support a successful learning experience. Also, you must arrange for him to receive a Letter of Accommodation from the Office of Disability Services. See this department statement for more information and links.

Public Observing at the Schommer Observatory

Members of the Rutgers University community and the general public are invited to observe the skies through the 20-inch telescope of the Schommer Observatory on the second, third, and fourth Thursday of every month, weather permitting.

Observing will be canceled for that night if the skies are cloudy at the beginning of the observing session. Please see the observatory home page for information about the next night.

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Please send any comments on this page to pryor at

Revised December 1, 2017