AST121 -- The Origin and Evolution of the Universe (Spring 2018)


Aim of the course

This introductory course is aimed at science students, but no prior knowledge of astronomy is assumed. The aims of the course are two-fold: First, it is intended to show students the fundamental and exciting nature of modern astronomy. Astronomers are seeking to answer very basic questions about the origin of the Universe and of all the things that we see in it, such as stars, galaxies, planets and even ourselves. These are questions which only a few decades ago seemed far beyond the reaches of scientific inquiry.

Secondly, and of more relevance to the majority of students, the course is intended to give students who are studying other scientific disciplines an astronomical perspective on these other areas of science. For instance, chemists will learn where and when the elements of the Periodic Table are created and biologists will acquire an understanding of how the prerequisites for complex life on Earth came about. Scientists of all persuasions should be interested in questions such as to why there is anything at all in the Universe.

More than anything, the intention is to provide you with an overall cosmic perspective on things.

Course prerequisites and exclusions

Prerequisites:  OAC Physics/SPH4U and OAC Calculus/MCB4U

Please note that there are several other introductory courses offered by the Department of Astronomy, e.g. AST 101, AST 201, AST 210, AST 251, which are much better suited to non-science students and to students who are not particularly happy with using mathematics as a tool to understanding. AST 121 is not any easier than the 200-level courses mentioned above - in fact for students who are not reasonably strong mathematically it is considerably harder. Non-science students are advised to take one of the other courses listed above.

The course is self-contained in the sense that it is not required for any other course. The course is not part of the Astronomy Specialist program, although students intending to enter the Astronomy Specialist program are quite welcome to take this course.


AST101, AST201, AST210. Also excluded are AST221, AST222 if taken previously or concurrently.


Foundations of Modern Cosmology, 2nd edition, J. Hawley & K. Holcomb, Oxford University Press, link at UofT elibrary (both pdf download and on-line reading)

I will also supplement the book using materials from the following sources:

The Physical Universe, An introduction to Astronomy by Frank Shu (1982)

Quarks, Leptons and the Big Bang, by Jonathan Allday (2002)

Just six numbers: the deep forces that shape the universe, by Martin Rees (2000)

All of these books are put on Gerstein science library course reserve.


Please obtain a clicker and register your machine on Blackboard course page, under i>Clicker Registration. You will need to bring your clicker to EVERY lecture. There is no credit given for forgotten clickers.  18% of class grades will come from Clicker questions.

Teaching Assistants

I will be assisted by three TAs (TBA). They are graduate students from the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. They will be conducting the help sessions,  marking the exams and assignments.


1) Clicker quizzes: at the beginning of each class, there will be quizzes based on reading assignments and other contents.  18% of total grades will come from these quizzes.

2) Midterm

The in-class mid-term will be on February 28 in the usual lecture hall at the usual lecture time.  This will contribute 10% to your final grade. If you are unable to take the test owing to illness then you must (a) notify me within one week of when the test was written, and (b) produce a U of T Student Medical Certificate or provide a note from your registrar before I will allow you to take a make-up test.

3) Assignments

There will be 6 assignments through the semester, typically due one week after posting, on Friday 12pm before class.These will constitute 42% of your final grade.  Assignments that are handed in late will be accepted, although a penalty of 15% per day will be deducted from that assignment's grade.  For instance, Monday submission = 30% reduction; Tuesday = 45%...

The aim of these assignments is to enable you to explore the subject in a more quantitative way than in the lectures, by working through some problems. These are intended to educate as well as to test, and you should not hesitate to seek assistance if necessary, and to discuss approaches to solutions with your fellow students. Regular help sessions (see below) will be scheduled that are specifically intended to help you with these assignments. So working through these during the dedicated help sessions will significantly improve your comfort level in the course.

Each help session will be focusing mostly on a particular problem set. So do not expect to show up only for the last help session in the term and have all your questions answered in one go.

Assignments must be independently written up. Plagiarism will not be tolerated, and will be dealt with severely. UofT has a very stringent academic integrity policy and we will follow it through. This is not just a warning -- a number of former students have gone through the misery.

4) Final Exam

There will be a 3 hour Final Exam at the end of the semester. The time and place for this Final will be published later in the semester. This will contribute 30% to your final grade.

Help Sessions & Office Hours

There will be two help sessions each week. You can choose to attend either one of them. There are in total 6 problem sets which you can work through during the help sessions.  Both the mid-term and the final exam will draw heavily from these exercises, as well as the in-class Clicker quizzes. The help sessions will be led by one or two TA's. During the session, you should sit together with a small group of friends and collaborate on the problems. TAs will be in the room to explain the concepts, and to provide diagnostics. If a common problem emerge, the TA will hold a short tutorial during the help session. These help sessions are the best way to interact with TAs and your fellow students.

If you wish to talk to me individually outside of the help sessions, please visit my office during the office hour or try to arrange an appointment with me by email. Don’t expect detailed answers to course-related questions by e-mail.