SCI199Y Astronomy at the Frontier

Fall 2008 -- Winter 2009, Prof. Yanqin Wu



Every student will give one short presentation in the first term and a long presentation in the second one. Furthermore, every student should take part in the discussions following the presentations by other students (the participation marks strongly depend on it). In each of these presentations, your targeted audiences should be your fellow students, NOT ME!

Short presentation

Each week there will be 3 short presentations, categorized as 'concepts', 'misconceptions' and 'astronomy picture of the day', respectively. Each talk is 10 minutes in length, followed by 5-10 minutes of questions and answers and free discussions. See the Calendar for your assigned date and category. On the third week (Sep. 22/23), I will present a few example talks to set the bar.

'Concepts': discuss a particular concept that relates to materials covered in the lectures. What is it about, what are real-life applications/analogies.

'Misconceptions': a common misconception about science (astronomy in particular) will be discussed. Why it is wrong, how it arises.

'Astronomy Picture of the Day': NASA's APOD page contains striking images (one per passing day) of the cosmos, with short descriptions. Your should first pick one that best illustrates one or more areas of materials that are covered in previous lectures. For instance, 080820 is a fine example of lunar eclipse, 080819 is an image of a dying star, 080731 shows what tidal gravity is... Then your should explain what the picture is about (the context) and how it corresponds with lecture materials (the core). The goal of this exercise is to let people learn through context.

Each talk will be followed by 5 to 10 minutes of questioning by your fellow students and the instructor. You'd better be an expert in your topic.

At least 24 hours before your talk e-mail me a short essay that your talk is based on. See the 'Essays' section below for requirements and how to hand it in.

Long presentation

In the second term, groups of two students research one of the twelve subjects listed in the calendar, and plan a presentation in two parts of 20 minutes each (marked independently), power-point style. Each part is followed by 5 to 10 minutes of questions from your fellow students and the instructor.

Be sure you present the background, describe what is the current state of our knowledge and what remains unknown, what are the most interesting and/or puzzling questions, how does it tie in with related topics, etc. Remember that your targeted audiences should be your fellow students --- NOT ME!

Also think carefully about what is the overall `take-home' message, and how to keep the structure of your talk logical and clear. Check that you digested your research sufficiently that you can present it in a way easily appreciated by your fellow students. Do you explain the difficult concepts you encountered? Do you go at a pace to ensure that the audiences can follow you? Do you avoid jargon? Are lists with a thousand numbers really helpful? Can you connect the material to everyday experience? Are there neat experiments and/or analogies that help show your point? Is the big picture clear from your talk?

Before Nov. 24th (but no earlier than Nov. 10th, 8 AM), let us know your partner and preference of subject. I will assign a subject/partner if you are late.
At least 24 hours before your talk hand in your final version of the power-point-style presentation, as well as a long essay. The presentation file should be sent by e-mail to If you want my feedback before your talk, send in your draft version much earlier than the deadline. See the 'Essays' section for how to hand in the essay.

Evaluations: 50% of grades from your fellow students, 50% from me.


You should hand in an essay at least 24 hours before your talk. The short talk should be accompanied by an essay that is about 200 words long, as well as a full list of references to materials you consulted. The long talk should be accompanied by an essay that is about 5 pages long (single-spaced), again with a full list of references (not included in the page limit)

Essays are supposed to be your own intellectual production by synthesizing available information. If you cite verbatim, you should use quotation marks. Plagiarism is an academic offense (see UofT Code of Behaviour on Academic Integrity), and UofT has licensed Turnitin to detect plagiarism. For how not to plagiarise, see here.

To submit an essay, you will have to first go to the Turnitin website, click on 'New Users' and then fill in Class ID, class enrollment password (both to be given out in first class), and then create your own account (also your email) and password. You can then submit your essays to either the 'short presentation' or the 'long presentation' assignments. Here is a guide to the Turnitin system for students.

Here is the legal blahh: “Normally, students will be required to submit their course essays to for a review of textual similarity and detection of possible plagiarism. In doing so, students will allow their essays to be included as source documents in the reference database, where they will be used solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism. The terms that apply to the University's use of the service are described on the web site.”

Finding material

There is a wealth of material on the web, in magazines like Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, Science, etc., and of course textbooks like Fraknoi, Chaisson, Kaler, Abell, Bennett. Generally, start with your textbook; it is a better and more reliable source of information than some random web pages. If you are stuck and need guidance, do see us; we can provide links to review articles that address the particular topics you are discussing.

Also a warning: The internet stores a bewildering array of images and movies on pretty much any topic we are going to touch on. However, your job is not just to collect pretty pictures. Your job is to use these materials to give a logical, coherent, intellectual discussion of a particular subject. Sometimes a slide with texts only is more effective, sometimes a picture. But do not forget that the slides you show should help illustrate your message, not deliver it.


I will set up the LCD projector every class. I can also provide a laptop (Mac) if need be – but send me your file well ahead of time. I will use a count-down alarm to time your talk. Grades for talks that exceed the alloted time will be negatively impacted. Lateness for submitting files is punishd by 10% grade loss per late day.