The Astronomy Major

The Astronomy major is designed for students with an interest in learning about many aspects of modern astronomy, but who might not have planned to undertake the more physics-intensive Astrophysics major. The Astronomy major is particularly suitable for students who seek a coherent course of study in astronomy, but who do not intend to pursue it in graduate school. It is also appropriate as a second major for students majoring in another field. The Astronomy major emphasizes understanding the observed properties of the physical systems that comprise the known universe, from the Sun and solar system, to the evolution of stars and star clusters, to the Milky Way Galaxy, to external galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

Because some knowledge of physics and calculus is necessary to understand many astronomical phenomena, the Astronomy major requires the first two semesters each of physics and calculus also required of Physics majors and Astrophysics majors.

There are several possible routes through the Astronomy major, depending on preparation and interest. Students considering a major in Astronomy should consult with members of the department early and often. A first-year student, unsure about choosing between Astronomy and Astrophysics, may wish to take not only [Astronomy 111] but also Physics 131 or 141 and Math 140 (if necessary) in the fall. Students who might place out of physics courses should read the section on placement under Physics.

Major requirements for astronomy

To complete the astronomy major one must complete the following course sequence:

    • Astronomy 111: Introduction to Astrophysics or Astronomy 101: Stars: From Suns to Black Holes
    • and either Astronomy 102: The Solar System–Our Planetary Home or Astronomy 104: The Milky Way Galaxy and the Universe Beyond
    • Two 200-level Astronomy courses
    • Two 400-level Astronomy courses
    • Physics 131: Particles and Waves or Physics 141: Particles and Waves–Enriched or equivalent placement
    • Physics 142: Foundations of Modern Physics or Physics 151: Seminar on Modern Physics
    • Math 140: Calculus II
    • Math 150/151: Multivariable Calculus or equivalent placement

The total number of courses required for the Astronomy major is nine. Students entering with Advanced Placement in physics and/or math may obtain credit toward the major for the equivalent of Physics 142 and/or Math 105 taken elsewhere. There are some aspects of astronomy that are closely related to chemistry or geosciences. In recognition of this, certain advanced courses in those departments can be accepted for credit toward the Astronomy major.

The Degree with Honors in Astronomy

The honors degree in Astronomy will be awarded on the basis of a senior thesis presenting the results of an original observational, experimental, or theoretical investigation carried out by the student under the direction of a faculty member in Astronomy. There are no specific grade requirements (other than College-wide requirements for remaining in good academic standing) for entry into the thesis research program; however, a student wishing to do a thesis should have demonstrated both ability and motivation for independent work in previous courses and in any earlier research involvement. Students doing theses will normally choose a topic and an adviser early in the second semester of their junior year. During the senior year, those students whose proposals have been approved will elect two courses and a Winter Study Project in addition to the minimum requirements for the major. At the end of the Winter Study Period, the department will decide, in consultation with each student, whether to admit that student to honors candidacy. Both a written thesis and an oral presentation to faculty and fellow students are required. The degree with honors will be awarded to those who meet these requirements with distinction. The degree with highest honors will be awarded to those who fulfill the requirements with unusually high distinction.

The department will be flexible with regard to the number and timing of courses devoted to thesis research within the general guidelines of two courses and a Winter Study Project over and above the minimum major requirements and the written and oral presentations, especially in cases of students with advanced standing and/or summer research experience. Students considering unusual requests are urged to consult with potential advisers or the department chair as early as possible.