Course Synopses


  • Course Description:
    Prerequisites: Two terms of introductory physics and two terms of calculus. 

    Properties and processes of the solar system, the stars, and the galaxies; origin of the elements; evolution of the stars and the universe; neutron stars and black holes.

    Astrophysics is the application of physical principles to astronomical systems. In Physics 341 and 342 you will learn how to use gravity, electromagnetism, and atomic, nuclear, and gas physics to understand planets, stars, galaxies, dark matter, and the Universe as a whole. In Physics 342 we will focus on the question: How did we get here?

    Our story will include the nucleosynthesis of hydrogen and helium in the first few minutes after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the formation of stars from this primordial gas, and the forging of heavier elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, among all others within these stars' nuclear furnaces. Around at least one star in the Universe some of these heavy elements coagulated to form a rocky planet with a tenuous atmosphere. On this planet Earth, the energy from the star and the gas in the atmosphere were just right to allow the emergence of life. The energy that sustains us originated deep in the Sun, thanks to E=mc2 . The atoms that comprise our bodies were made inside dying stars. Literally, we are star dust. The goal of Physics 342 is to understand the physics of this remarkable story.

    Some astrophysical systems are described by equations that are fairly easy to solve, and we will certainly study them. However, many interesting systems cannot be solved exactly. Nevertheless, we can often use physical insight and approximate calculations to understand the salient features of a system without sweating the details. One goal of the course is to develop that skill. As you will see, it will take us very far (through the whole Universe, in fact!). Another goal is to learn about recent advances in astrophysics, a very dynamic field of research.

    Prerequisites for this class are two semesters of physics and two semesters of calculus. Previous study of modern physics is a must. I will briefly review physical principles as we need them, but assume that you have seen them before. I will also assume familiarity with vector calculus. Some of the assignments may involve a bit of computation that can be done with programs like Excel, Google Spreadsheets, Maple, Matlab, or Mathematica. Note that Physics 341 is not a prerequisite for Physics 342; the two courses are designed to be complementary, but independent.

    Lectures will be based on the course textbook, Principles of Astrophysics: Using Gravity and Stellar Physics to Explore the Cosmos, by Prof. Chuck Keeton. (It was written specifically for this course.)

  • Learning Management System: