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Overview News Lectures Coursework


The course aims to provide an introduction to the historical development of modern astronomy. After a brief chronological overview and a discussion of the scientific status of astronomy and the philosophy of science in general, the course is divided into a series of thematic topics addressed in roughly chronological order. We will focus on the nature of discovery in astronomy, in particular the interplay between theory and observation, the role of technological advances, and the relationship between astronomy and physics.


The course is divided into ten themes, two of which are introductory and the remaining eight approximately chronological.

1. Astronomy in History
timeline for history of astronomy with useful context from other sciences and history
2. Astronomy as Science
brief introduction to philosophy of science: empiricism, inductivism, Popper's falsifiablity criterion, Kuhnian paradigm shifts
3. Early Astronomy: Earth and Sky
application of astronomical phenomena to calendars, time-keeping, navigation
4. Renaissance Astronomy and beyond: the Earth in Space
geocentric and heliocentric cosmologies; orbital motion; stellar distances. Move from descriptive algorithms ("saving the phenomena") to explanatory approach as per modern science (Ptolemy→Copernicus→Kepler→Newton). Concept of universal physical laws (contrast Newton with Aristotle). End of the era of naked-eye observing.
5. The Rise of the Telescope: the role of instrumentation in astronomical advance
development of telescopes and instrumentation (photography, spectroscopy) and its effect on astronomical knowledge from Galileo to Hubble; parallax and the beginnings of the astronomical distance scale; spectroscopy and the Doppler effect.
6. The Astronomical Zoo: objects and classification systems
evolution of our concepts of astronomical objects and classification systems and their effects (e.g. recategorising the Sun as a star; distinguishing between intragalactic "nebulae" and extragalactic "galaxies"; recognising supernovae as distinct from novae, etc.)
7. Astrophysics
20th century advances in understanding of "extreme physics": quantum & atomic physics and stellar energy generation and evolution; pulsars as neutron stars; black holes
8. Beyond the Visible 1: radio astronomy
radar and the birth of radio astronomy; challenges of radio astronomy; impact of radio astronomy on extragalactic astronomy (especially cosmology); the high redshift universe
9. Cosmology
impact of general relativity; Hubble law; Big Bang vs Steady State (case study of hypothesis testing, cf. Topic 2); Hubble Wars (case study in how not to calculate your systematic errors?); inflation and the developing linkage between cosmology and particle physics
10. Beyond the Visible 2: impact of space exploration on astronomy
direct impact of space exploration on planetary physics; increasing impact of space-borne platforms for extending the usable spectrum (IR, UV, X-rays) and improving resolution (HST, Hipparcos)

Recommended textbooks

The principal recommended text is

Also worth consulting are:

Useful for Topic 2:

All of these are available in the Information Commons or the Main Library.


The assessment for PHY327 has two parts:

The end-of-semester exam (50%)
Covers the taught material. The rubric is "Answer any three questions (out of six)." Obviously, given the nature of the course, these are descriptive questions, not numerical.
For example questions with comments and outline answers, see the lecture notes page.
A 3000-word essay (10% + 40%)
Write an essay on a topic in the history of astronomy (choose any one from a list of about ten). The aim of this exercise is to develop your skills in retrieving and assimilating information from a variety of written sources, and in communicating this in a clear, informative, well-structured and properly referenced form.
The first 10% of the essay mark is awarded on the basis of an essay plan, consisting of a detailed table of contents, with notes, and a list of sources. This should help you to turn in a better essay and develop your skills in carrying out a literature search.

The assessment for PHY427 has three parts:

The end-of-semester exam (40%)
This is the same as the PHY327 exam, but is worth slightly less because as 4th year students you should be capable of more than factual recall and synthesis.
A "News and Views" article (20%)
Discuss a classic paper in astronomy in the style of a Nature "News and Views" article. The aim of this exercise is to test your ability to set a piece of astronomical work in its proper historical context and explain this successfully to a non-specialist audience. Critical assessment of sources is part of the benchmark for 4th year courses.
A 3000-word essay (40%)
The essay is the same as for PHY327, but as you have already done a literature search and written at least one project report you don't get marks for the essay plan – you should already know how to do this. If you want to hand in an essay plan for feedback, you are very welcome to do so, but you don't get credit for it. (It may improve your final essay, though!)

More information can be found in the page on coursework.