ASTR340: Origin of the Universe
  Spring 2017

Meeting Place and Time: CSS2400 TTh, 11:00-12:15

ALMA antennas
Textbook: Foundations of Modern Cosmology, 2nd edition
J. Hawley and K. Holcomb
Oxford, c. 2005
ISBN 0-19-853096-X.

Course Overview:

A standard phrase these days is that we live in a Golden Age of cosmology.  This is an enthusiastic statement of the remarkable progress that we have made recently in understanding the shape, age, and other properties of the Universe.  This course is an introduction to cosmology -- our perception and study of the Universe on the largest scales --  designed primarily for non-science majors. 

We will begin with a historical view of the human race's beliefs about the Universe, starting with the belief that the Earth itself was the Universe and discussing how scientific observations forced us to acknowledge that human beings are not the center of a static Universe designed to accommodate us.  This was a big adjustment!  We continue with exploring other adjustments to human thought as we can see larger sections of the Universe, understanding that our familiar notions of time and space are a special case of more general notions that become important on large scales.  On large scales time and space are not separate, and, even less intuitively, are affected by the mass of nearby objects.  We will explore these topics by looking at Einstein's beautiful work on special and general relativity.  One of Einstein's predictions was that some parts of space would be so severely curved that no light could escape, and we'll look at the "black holes" that satisfy these properties.

With an understanding of the general properties of the Universe, we will then tackle the fundamental questions of how (and when) the Universe started and how (and when) it will finish.  These topics take us through the discovery of the Universe's expansion, the Big Bang theory of its start, and the very recent results that provide information on its shape and fate.   We take a personal interest in the time between the start and finish -- we live in that era! -- so we will also look at how the matter in the Universe changed with time, eventually becoming galaxies, stars, planets, and us.

Course work includes twice-weekly lectures, approximately weekly take-home problem sets, a midterm, a cumulative final exam, and a term paper or project with topic to be decided by mutual agreement with class members and the instructor. 

Course Expectations:

Lecture attendance: Lectures meet in CSS 2400 on TTh from 11:00-12:15.  Prof. Harris will lead the lectures but you will be expected to raise questions and participate in discussions.  In order to do best in this course, you will need to attend ALL lectures. This is very important! The material on the homeworks and exams are based upon the material covered in the lectures and the textbook. If you have to miss a lecture, be sure to look at another student's notes and make sure that you understand what was covered.  Please ask Prof. Harris or the TA if you have questions.  You should read over the material before lecture and be prepared to discuss it.  A more careful reading is recommended after lecture. You should study your class notes sometime before the next lecture to make sure that everything is clear.  You are encouraged to ask questions in class -- any question you have is certain to be one others have -- or during office hours, or over email.

Study Habits: Study wisely and ask for help if you need it. If you just cram the night before the exam, you probably will not do very well. It is better (and easier) if you keep up with the material on a daily basis. If you have questions, please see Prof. Harris. I am here to help you learn.


Grading is on a point scale with different assignments weighted as shown in the table. A description of each of these components is contained in this syllabus.

The Midterm and Final Exams are Major Scheduled Grading events defined in the University's policy on attendance (see  Exam grades are adjusted upward, if need be, so the median score is at least 75%.  Letter grades will be assigned based upon your cumulative score. Here is how your grade will be determined from your point total in the class.

Letter Grade
< 50.0%

Plus/minus grades will be given within each letter grade for scores near the top and bottom of the percentage ranges.

This point scale makes it possible for everyone in the class to do well. For example, if everyone scores above 75% in the course, everyone would receive either an A or a B letter grade. Any adjustments to the scores will make it easier to get a given grade, never more difficult. 


There will be approximately weekly homework problem sets in this course. All homeworks and solutions will be available from the Assignments link on the class ELMS page. 

All homeworks must be turned in, neatly written or typed, on 8.5x11 inch paper in class on the assignment due date.   If for whatever reason, the University is officially closed on the due date, the due date shifts to the next lecture date.  Homework is due in hard copy, and except by prior special arrangement with Prof. Harris; electronically mailed versions of your homework will not be accepted.   Homeworks turned in after the lecture ends will be considered late and will receive 20% of the credit at most until 24 hours after the end of lecture, and 50% credit at most for homework turned in at the next lecture; no credit will be given for homework handed in more than one lecture late.  If you have an excused absence that prevents you from handing your homework in on time, you must document it in writing (see Attendance and Absences, below)  and arrange to have the homework turned in as soon as possible, but no later than during the next lecture.

I encourage discussions with your fellow students on how to best tackle the problems, but I will not tolerate copying or other forms of cheating. Such activities will be promptly reported to the UMD Student Honor Council. Please review the Honor Code of the University (see Academic Integrity below). Although you may discuss the homework problems with your friends, the final writeup must be your own work, formulated in the way you best understand it, and in your own words. If you consult a reference other than the course text, please acknowledge it in your homework - this includes websites!

Midterm Exam

There will be one in-class 75-minute midterm examination, which will be held in CSS 2400 on Thursday, March 9.   This exam is closed book with one page of notes allowed, and do bring a calculator. The schedule of lectures included in this syllabus shows what material will be covered on the midterm exam.  The midterm exam is a Major Grading Event (see policy on attendances and absences).

If for whatever reason, the University is officially closed on the exam date, the exam date shifts to the next lecture date. 

Final Exam

According to University rules, the final exam for this course will be held on Saturday May 13, from 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM in CSS 2400. This final exam is cumulative, that is, it will cover all material discussed in this course.  Material not covered by the midterm exam (see Lecture Schedule) will be somewhat emphasized in the final exam.  This exam is closed book with one page of notes, and do bring a calculator.  The final exam is a Major Grading Event (see policy on attendances and absences).

Problem Set and Exam Corrections

If you would like to ask for problem set or exam markings to be reevaluated, you must bring it to Prof. Harris within one month of the original due date.  There is no time limit on errors in addition for scores, however.

Extra Credit

There will be no extra credit assignments in this class.

Attendance and Absences

Please review the University's Attendance and Assessment Policy and the University policy on  medically-necessitated absences at    Some basic points for this class:

Academic Integrity

The academic community at the University abides by a Code of Academic Integrity. Acts of academic dishonesty include cheating, fabrication, facilitating academic dishonesty, and plagiarism. Activities such as cheating on exams or quizzes, copying homework from a friend or book, allowing your homework or paper to be copied, and submitting forged excuses for absences from exams are violations of this code. If we suspect that an incident of academic dishonesty has occurred, we will turn the case over to the Student Honor Council to investigate and resolve. If the suspected party is judged `responsible' for the act(s) of academic dishonesty, the normal sanction is a course grade of `XF' which denotes failure due to academic dishonesty. This grade is recorded onto the student's academic transcript. The Code of Academic Integrity can be found in the Academic Info section of the Schedule of Classes. It is printed in full in the Undergraduate catalog and information is available at Please refer to this Code if you have further questions about what is construed as academic dishonesty. We are very serious about this.

Class Web Page

The World Wide Web is a very useful resource that we will make use of in this class (e.g., students will be asked to use the internet for some of the questions on the problem sets). The primary web connection for enrolled students is the University's ELMS page found by logging into  If you have difficulty accessing the internet, please discuss this with Prof. Harris before the end of the schedule adjustment period.  In addition, the class site is also a gateway to many other astronomy links, including sites with up-to-date astronomical images that are made available to the public from telescopes in space and on the ground.

Laptop, Tablet, and Mobile Device Policy

In principle, laptops and tablets can allow you to take notes faster and access the class website. In practice, they are frequently distracting and used for non-class purposes.  Displays showing non-class material can be very distracting for other students who have a view of your screen. 

If the use of laptops and tablets turns out to be too distracting for the class as a whole, Prof. Harris  may need to ban them entirely.  Let's hope that doesn't happen.

There is no need to use phones or other mobile devices during class, even for texting.  Please refrain.

Special Circumstances

Students with a documented disability should inform Prof. Harris as soon as possible (preferably on the first day of class, and certainly by the end of the schedule adjustment period) so that appropriate academic accommodations can be made.