Astronomy 340: Fall 2016

"Origin of the Universe"

The course is an introduction to modern Cosmology intended primarily for non-science majors. We will study the progression of our knowledge about the origin and evolution of the universe through history, with particular emphasis on modern cosmological results. Topics include: early cosmological models, geocentric vs. heliocentric theory, curvature of space, Hubble's Law, Big Bang Theory, microwave background radiation, evolution of stars and galaxies, dark matter, active galaxies, quasars and the future of the universe. Modern Cosmology uses the laws of Physics to construct models of the universe that describe how it evolved from simple initial conditions. The current cosmological paradigm has been quite successful at explaining many of the amazing aspects of the Universe around us. In order to do so, however, cosmologists introduced new concepts such as ``dark matter'' and ``dark energy''. We will discuss the need for such concepts, and the physics behind them. Whether such hypotheses will stand the test of time is the subject of much current research.

Course Prerequisite

The course is intended for non-science majors and assumes high-school-level algebra, and either ASTR 100 or 101 as a prerequisite. See also the official UMD info on this course.

Mathematics, not English, is the language of the natural world; that is why it is used in science. Because this is a general course I will endeavor to introduce concepts using the simplest possible math, explaining them in words and graphs before resorting to equations. Some math, however, is unavoidable and, I would argue, desirable.


    Instructor:   Alberto Bolatto
    Class:        room CSS 2400
    Lectures:     Tuesday and Thursday from 12.30 pm to 1:45 pm --- No open laptops
    First class:  Tue Aug 30
    Last  class:  Thu Dec 8
    Midterm exam: tbd
    Final exam:   Mon Dec 19 (1:30-3:30 pm CSS 2400)

Contact info and Notes

Instructor: Prof. Alberto Bolatto

Teaching assistant/Grader: Mr. Weizhe Liu


Required Textbook:
Foundations of Modern Cosmology 2/e, by John F. Hawley and Katherine A. Holcomb. Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-853096-X
Authors' web site for the textbook

Course Outline

Cal. DateLectureReadingLecture NotesHomework/Exam
Part I: History of Cosmology
#1Aug 30Introduction to the courseCh.1Lecture 1
#2Sep 01Geocentric cosmology and astronomyCh.2Lecture 2
#3Sep 06Renaissance empiricism and the heliocentric modelCh.2Lecture 3
#4Sep 08The Universe of physical lawCh.3Lecture 4Homework 1
Part II: Relativity
#5Sep 13The age of the Earth and the CosmosCh.3Lecture 5Solutions 1
#6Sep 15Principles of space and timeCh.6Lecture 6
#7Sep 20Special relativityCh.7Lecture 7Homework 2
#8Sep 22Special relativityCh.7Lecture 8
#9Sep 27Special relativityCh.7Lecture 9Solutions 2
#10Sep 29General relativityCh.8Lecture 10Homework 3
#11*Oct 04General relativity Ch.8Lecture 11Solutions 3
#12*Oct 06Black HolesCh.9Lecture 12
Part III: Modern Cosmology
#13Oct 11The Universe beyond our GalaxyCh.10Lecture 13
#14Oct 13Cosmological expansion Ch.10Lecture 14
- *Oct 18Midterm Exam: normal class hours, CSS 2400-
#15*Oct 20Geometry and evolution of the UniverseCh.11Lecture 15
#16Oct 25Geometry and evolution of the UniverseCh.11Lecture 16Homework 4
#17Oct 27The Big Bang and early UniverseCh.12Lecture 17Solutions 4
#18Nov 01The Big Bang and early UniverseCh.12Lecture 18
#19Nov 03Measurement of cosmological parametersCh.13Lecture 19Homework 5
Part IV: Contemporary Cosmology
#20Nov 08Measurement of cosmological parametersCh.13Lecture 20Solutions 5
#21*Nov 10Measurement of cosmological parametersCh.13Lecture 21
#22Nov 15Cosmic background radiationCh.14Lecture 22a
#23Nov 17Cosmic background radiationCh.14Lecture 22bHomework 6
#24Nov 22Dark matter and cosmic structure formationCh.15Lecture 23Solutions 6
- Nov 24Thanksgiving-
#25Nov 29Dark matter and cosmic structure formationCh.15Lecture 24
#26Dec 01Cosmological inflationCh.16Lecture 25
#27Dec 06Cosmological inflationCh.16Lecture 26
#28Dec 08Review --- Review
- Dec 19Final Exam: Monday, CSS 2400, 1:30pm-3:30pm-

* Travel. Lectures covered by other professors: IAU Regional Meeting/ALMA Science Advisory Committee/Berkeley Colloquium/IRAM Program Committee.

Course Grading

Final grades for this course will be computed based on cumulative points (out of 100 total) in the areas below, according to the weights listed: Final letter grades will be curved, based on the total points received. The minimum letter grade that you can obtain is You can (and usually will) get a better grade depending on the average performance of the class.

Homework will be assigned 6 times during the semester, due the following week, and must be turned in at the beginning of class. This is 30% of your grade (5% per homework), so do not forget to turn it in. The only late homework accepted will be for excused, documented absences (see below).

Points will not be given for any ``extra credit projects.'' It is important to timely complete all the regular assignments to get the most you can out of the class!

Participation will be measured through unannouced quizzes at the begining of some lectures, where I will ask you to answer a question about a concept of the previous lecture in a library card. I will also take strongly into account you raising your hand during the lectures to ask or answer questions (see below).

Office hours I will have office hours before class, Thu 11 am -12 pm. My office is on the first floor of the Physical Sciences Complex, 1158. Sometimes I may have telecons or other appointments, so please email me/contact me to make sure I will be able to meet. I can also meet at other times during the week: email me to arrange a time.

Travel As an active researcher I have to travel with some frequency: advisory committees, invited talks, evaluation panels, etc. Those dates are marked in the calendar with an asterik (*) in as much as I can anticipate them at the beginning of the semester. The class will be taught in my absence by another professor from the Department of Astronomy, and due homeworks will still be due.

Midterm exam: There will be one in-class examination on Oct 18th during normal class hours. This exam will be closed book. The exam will consist of a section of short answer questions, followed by longer essay and problem solving and/or multiple choice questions.

Final exam: As per the University rules, the final exam for this course will be held on the date and place specified in the schedule. The final exam will cover all material discussed in this course. The format of the final exam will be the similar to the midterm exam.

Uniform course policies: The University of Maryland has a uniform set of course policies that are respected by all courses on campus. They are found in Course Policies. Please read them for your own information. What is below is just a summary of some of them.

Religious observances: It is the student responsibility to inform the instructor of any intended absences for religious observances in advance. That prior notification is especially important in connection with final examinations, since failure to reschedule a final examination before the conclusion of the final examination period may result in loss of credits during the semester.

Class participation: Although computer notes will be made available for each lecture, it is important to attend the lectures. There is a strong correlation between class attendance and performance in the exams. Moreover, sitting in the back while reading the newspaper, surfing the Internet, or texting during a lecture is not particularly useful. Paying attention, and asking/answering questions to ensure that information is effectively and accurately transferred between teacher and student is ideal. I will not verify attendance to each lecture, but I will ocassionally hand out quizzes that will be part of your grade. I will also remember whether you ask questions or answer my questions during lecture, and I will give you credit for your participation.

Open Laptops

Partially to discourage distracting behavior such as Internet surfing or email checking I will not allow open laptops during lectures. If you need your laptop to take notes, come talk to me and be prepared to sit in the first two rows.

Students with Special Needs

Students with a documented disability who wish to discuss academic accommodations should contact the professor as soon as possible.

Academic Integrity and Excused Absence

University regulations will apply regarding academic honesty and excused absences.

Students who are ill or have another valid excuse must explain the circumstances to the instructor before the due date of an assignment or exam if at all possible, and then complete the work within the following week, in order to get full credit. Any illnesses or emergencies need to be properly documented.

The University of Maryland, College Park has a nationally recognized Code of Academic Integrity, administered by the Student Honor Council. University standards regarding academic integrity apply to all work performed for credit in this course, and as a student you are responsible for upholding these standards. Particulars of the University's Code are printed in the Undergraduate Catalog, and a description of what constitutes academic dishonesty is also given in the on-line Schedule of Classes. In brief, the Code requires that you must never engage in acts of academic dishonesty at any time. Acts of academic dishonesty include cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, or helping another person to do any of these things. Violation of the Code carries very serious consequences; for more information, please visit the Student Honor Council web site.

The rules regarding academic integrity apply to homework as well as to exams. As a part of these rules, you must give credit to any book, published article, or web page that you have used to help you with a particular assignment. These rules also apply to unpublished sources of information. In particular, students are encouraged to discuss assignments and other class material with each other, but every student must personally think through and write up his or her own answers to the homework/exam questions. Copying or cheating will not be tolerated. To further exhibit your commitment to academic integrity, remember to sign the Honor Pledge on all examinations and assignments:

"I pledge on my honor that I have not given or received any unauthorized assistance on this assignment/examination."


Homework will typically be assigned once every two weeks, due the following week, and must be turned in at the beginning of class. You should expect about 6 assignments during the semester. I have marked in the calendar the tentative dates when homeworks will be handed out.

Homework will be considered late by the end of class and will no longer be accepted. If for some reason you cannot make it to class, you should either ask a friend/classmate to hand in your assignment for you, or make sure that it gets to the instructor beforehand. The easiest procedure is to email it as a .pdf attachment.

If, for whatever reason, the University is officially closed on the due date for an assignment, the due date will be moved to the next lecture.

Course Evaluations

Your participation in the evaluation of courses through CourseEvalUM is a responsibility you hold as a student member of our academic community. Your feedback is confidential and important to the improvement of teaching and learning at the University as well as to the tenure and promotion process. CourseEvalUM will be open for you to complete your evaluations sometime in November. Please go directly to the CourseEvalUM website to complete your evaluations around that time. The process should take less than 20 minutes, and the sooner it is done the less will it get in the way of studying for the finals. By completing all of your evaluations each semester, you will have the privilege of accessing online, at Testudo, the evaluation reports for the thousands of courses for which 70% or more students submitted their evaluations.

Useful Links

  • Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)
  • Astronomy Workshop Extragalactic (AWE) Java apps and demos
  • Ned Wright's cosmology web page at UCLA
  • Level 5 cosmology articles
  • Millenium cosmological simulations
  • Millenium II cosmological simulations
  • Aquarius simulations: forming the Milky Way
  • Nick Gnedin's cosmology simulations
  • Center for Cosmological Physics simulations
  • Simple galaxy simulator for a PC
  • Relativistic distortion velocity raptor dinosaur game
    Nobel Prize Lectures
  • Saul Perlmutter's 2011 Nobel Prize lecture (acceleration of the cosmic expansion using supernovae)
  • Brian Schmidt's 2011 Nobel Prize lecture (acceleration of the cosmic expansion using supernovae)
  • Adam Riess' 2011 Nobel Prize lecture (acceleration of the cosmic expansion using supernovae)
  • John Mather's 2006 Nobel Prize lecture (precision measurements of the CMB)
  • George Smoot's 2006 Nobel Prize lecture (precision measurements of the CMB)
  • Arno Penzias' 1978 Nobel Prize lecture (discovery of the CMB)
  • Robert W. Wilson's 1978 Nobel Prize lecture (discovery of the CMB)