Galaxies and the Universe

A Harvard Freshman Seminar (21x, Catalog #4075), Half Course, Fall Term 2010/11.

This seminar generally will meet from 2:30-5:00 P.M. on Mondays in the Pratt Conference room at the Observatory (60 Garden Street, up near the Radcliffe Quad). Occasionally we may meet at other locations depending on time and schedule --- warning, I may have to go to telescopes in stange places at strange times, one of the hazards of being an observational astronomer! The first offical meeting of this seminar for the spring of 2010/11 will be on Wednesday, September 1st, at 2:30 P.M. also in the Pratt Conference Room (a.k.a. Observatory PG04). Note the special first meeting date on the first day of classes. Directions to the Observatory and to the Pratt Conference Room can be found here: Observatory/Pratt Directions.


PROF. JOHN P. HUCHRA will offer a seminar on Galaxies and the Universe. The seminar will offer and introduction to the study of galaxies and cosmology and will discuss the interplay between observation and theory as well as our ability to view the universe. We will discuss the scientific method and the rise of our modern cosmological models. Topics covered will include the internal structure and dynamics of galaxies, cosmological models, the determination of the cosmic distance scale, observations of large-scale structure in the universe, quasars, galaxy formation, and the age, size, and fate of the universe. We will explore the basic observations that lend support to the current cosmological model, the inflationary hot Big Bang, and we shall discuss the recent observations that indicate that the Universe might even be speeding up. Readings will be taken from current popular articles and texts. Students will participate in a small research project using electronic images of galaxies or catalogs of galaxy properties to measure simple properties of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. We'll also try to do some observing with Harvard's local telescopes. Attendees of this seminar should have some mathematical background.

The seminar will use Stephen Phillipps' book The Structure & Evolution of Galaxies. I suggest purchasing a copy either at the COOP or from one of the discount textbook websites noted on my main website.

Readings will be taken from the assigned text, from Scientific American, from introductory and popular texts and from other current popular articles. It is especially important for students to keep up with the New York Times Tuesday's Science Times. Students will participate in small research projects using a variety of datasets and images of galaxies or catalogs of galaxy properties to measure simple properties of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. We'll also try to do some observing with Harvard's local telescopes.

Considerable information on modern cosmology can also be found on the web. A good starter site is NASA's:

  • Universe: Cosmology 101
  • The goals of this seminar are to acquaint students with

    (1) What galaxies are,

    (2) What observational astrophysics is,

    (3) What the current cosmological model is, and

    (4) How observations of galaxies are used both to ``measure'' the universe and to test cosmological theories.

    The seminar is intended to give students a general overview of extragalactic astronomy with particular emphasis on the concept of using observations (experiments) to test and constrain theories. In the course of the seminar, we will cover some basic physical concepts such as the Virial Theorem and gravitational binding energy, we will discuss the concept of infinity and we will touch on black holes and quasars. This is an astronomical introduction to the scientific method.

    The first few discussions will center on the philosophy of astronomical observations (as opposed to laboratory experimentation), and discussions of what exactly galaxies are and why they are important in both the study of humankind's place in the universe and our study {\it of} the universe including simple cosmological theories. Discussions during the middle of the term will cover current observational work on the measurement of the cosmic distance scale, the mass density of the universe, the rate at which the universe is slowing down and the age of the universe. The seminar will close with discussions of advanced topics such as galaxy formation, large scale structure in the universe, and the eventual fate of the universe.

    Near the middle of the term, you wil be given small projects to work on, primarily involving computers to analyse data on galaxies. These will include using software packages to determine surface brightness and color profiles for galaxies from digital images and to study the dynamical properties of a few clusters of galaxies to determine their masses. The students will do these in groups of 3 or 4 with the aid of the instructor.

    Reading assignments will be made each week, usually from the assigned books or from popular (Scientific American level) articles. Students will (weather permitting) do some observing at either the Science Center or Harvard ollege Observatory. I also will invite guests from the CfA staff who have special interests in the topics covered.

    The seminar requirements will be attendance and class participation, a writeup of the research projects, and a final short essay on one of the general topics covered in the seminar. Most of the books and materials needed for this seminar are easily available at the Harvard COOP or on

    ***Tentative*** Meeting Schedule

    The ``Galaxies and the Universe'' seminar will be held at the Observatory in the Pratt Conference Room (ground floor of the Perkin Lab at 60 Garden Street). The usual meeting time will be Monday afternoons , but because of scheduling constraints, some meetings will be on Wednesdays or other days by arrangement. Starting time will be 2:30 P.M. for the first week, but may be shifted by agreement. The First meeting is WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1st, 2010 at 2:30 P.M. We will adjust our regular Monday meeting time after that. We primarily will be reading from The Structure and Evolution of Galaxies by Steven Phillipps and also from The Big Bang by Joe Silk, plus other material such as semi-polular articles from Scientific American . An Introduction to Modern Cosmology, 2nd edition by Andrew Liddle is also useful for the more mathematically inclined interested in the basic equations that describe the cosmological model.

    Tentative Schedule

    Sept 1 --- W --- Introduction, Basics of Astronomy and Cosmology

    Sept 13 --- M --- Galaxies and Morphology

    Sept 20 --- M --- Elliptical Galaxies

    Sept 27 --- M --- Sprial Galaxies I Structure

    Oct 4 --- M --- Spiral Galaxies II Content

    Oct 18 --- M --- Irregular galaxies

    Oct 25 --- M --- Quasars and Active Galaxies

    Nov 1 --- M --- Galaxy Clustering

    Nov 8 --- M --- Galaxies & Cosmology

    Nov 15 --- M --- Galaxy Evolution

    Nov 22 --- M --- The Contents, Age & Fate of the Universe

    Nov 29 --- M --- Project Presentations

  •         Meet to discuss progress on Projects as needed

    Scientfic American articles are available either on-line through Harvard's Hollis subscription (for more recent articles) or at the Science Library.

    Office Hours by Appointment. Call 495-7375 or 495-7390 (Lisa Catella, John's assistant) for an appointment.

    Prof. John Huchra, Observatory P-309, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138



  • The Motion of the Milky Way
  • The Virgo Cluster and Cosmology
  • Measuring the Hubble Constant
  • Mapping the Local Group and the Very Nearby Universe
  • Clusters of Galaxies
  • Galaxy Groups
  • The Properties Galaxies as a Function of Location
  • The Properties of the Local Supercluster of Galaxies
  • Voyage to the Great Attractor

    Various Utilities are available for use for the seminar, including a routine called ``getimage'' which will allow you to created images of galaxies from the POSS image server using the IDL routine "makeps" to make postscript files, and the Supermongo package, for making plots.

    Here are links to Useful Unix Primers

    Here is a quick tutorial for the emacs editor (unix, linux): EMACS Tutorial

    And here is the working fortran program: read.f

    Back to JPH's website.

    John P. Huchra <>