GENS 4001 Astronomy

Information for Session I, 2009

Brief Syllabus

The aim of the course is to give you some appreciation of the wonder of the universe.  We will do this by describing the nature of different elements of the cosmos – the solar system, the stars and the galaxies, and challenge you to understand these in relation to the world around you.  The course is designed to give students from a non-scientific background an appreciation of the techniques, the discoveries and the excitement of modern astronomy and astrophysics.

The history of civilisation has been inextricably linked to our perception of our physical environment.  Our understanding of that environment and our attempts to control it have been the driving force behind our technological development as a species.  Astronomy is the oldest science and it is through a consciousness of the heavens that we first came to recognise our place in the universe.  This has developed from an initial flat-Earth, homosapien-centred view of the universe, to one dominated on the large scales by the processes of clustering and voids of galaxies, to the small scale of the fundamental forces and elementary particles. The lecture material is divided into three main parts, dealing in turn with astronomical phenomena at ever increasing distance from us:

In addition there will be discussion on special topics such as observatories around the world, Astronomy in Antarctica (which UNSW is pioneering) and current hot topics in astronomy.

Assumed knowledge



Lectures on the solar system
Lectures on stars and their environment
Lectures on galaxies
No lectures (tutorials and night observing instead)


To pass you must achieve a satisfactory performance in each of:

Assessment Component


On-line test


Oral Presentation


Observing Class






Online Test 40%

An on-line test comprised of multiple-choice questions will be set on general astronomical topics. While this is based on the lectures, it extends beyond the material covered in the lectures (but within the material covered by the recommended textbook).  You will need to research some of the answers for yourself. The test will be available online by means of the course WebCT Vista site, and details will be e-mailed to you.  The test isn't timed, and you can go back and revisit it as many times as you like before final submission. The test needs to be completed by the advertised deadline.

Oral Presentation 20%

You are required to privately research an issue or topic and present your findings in the form of a 10-12 minute oral presentation to a tutorial group of your fellow students, who will then ask you questions.  Marks will be awarded on the basis of the overall plan for the talk, the quality of the presentation and the handling of questions.  Marks will also be awarded for your contribution to the discussion following other student's talks.

Oral presentations take place during two of the final four weeks of the course.  You need to attend two tutorials, if you only attend one, your mark for the oral presentation will be halved. You will be divided into tutorial groups based on an availability form that you complete. When this is done you can choose your topic for presentation from a list provided by the tutor.

For your talk you may use either the blackboard or an overhead projector. However slide projectors or computer displays are not available. Do not try to cover too much material in your talk. Use no more than one overhead transparency per minute of your talk, and make sure all transparancies are easily read from the back of the room. Remember you are trying to give a brief, but entertaining talk to your fellow students. Anyone simply reading from a script will be scored poorly!

Night Observing Classes 20%

You will be given the opportunity to do some real observing of astronomical objects and to learn how to use a telescope. These classes take place in the UNSW Observatory on the roof of the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) building, uphill from the Old Main Building, adjactent to the lower campus parking station, during two of the final weeks of session (the alternate two weeks from your oral presentation). 

You need to complete an availability form and return it to the lecturer to indicate which classes you can attend.

Assessment for these classes is based upon participation and the completion of a work sheet. 

Access to the Observatory is via the elevator to the top floor, and then through two locked doors. You must be accompanied by your tutor, and will normally assemble in the Physics foyer (the lobby with the Foucault Pendulum in the Old Main Building) to walking to the Observatory. Don't be late, since the class will move off to the observatory (or to a nearby lecture room for a brief introductory talk) at a few minutes after 7pm.

The Observatory contains one C14 (Celestron 14") Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, housed inside the dome, and four portable Meade 8s (8") telescopes, which can be mounted on stands on the roof of the CSE building.

You will generally be doing your exercises in groups of 3-4 students using the C8 telescopes, while your tutor will point the C14 to sources of interest in the sky. There is an electronic (CCD) camera for the C14, though it is not normally possible to set this up during group classes. The C14 is connected to a computer with planetarium software, which allows one to readily find objects of interest.

You will be working at night and in the dark, so please bring warm clothing and a torch, as well as your study materials. To access the Observatory, all students must be wearing hard-soled shoes, without high heels.

Classes are not cancelled due to bad weather! In the event of particularly inclement wseather your tutor will have prepared an alternative project for you.

If you are interested in using the observatory at other times, the Science Outreach Centre holds regular observing nights, usually on Fridays. Further information can be obtained from the Outreach manager, on 02-9385-7307 in the Faculty of Science Student Office.

Portfolio 20%

Each student is required to maintain a journal containing articles from the media on astronomy and related space sciences. These may be scientific, technical, political or even historical in nature.  Your own concise analytic comments about each article should be included.  You can also include discussion of points from the lectures which might have particularly interested you and which you researched further.  This needs to be completed by the final week of the course.

Articles should be taken from a selection of sources, current during the session. Typical articles include clippings from newspapers. Long articles from Astronomy magazines can be used, but their number should be limited, and they should be from several sources. Similarly the internet and the web may be used to source articles, but their number should comprise no more than one third the total number selected. The only exception to this is newspaper articles collected from on-line issues of Australian newspapers - these may be counted as equivalent to the printed edition of that article.

Typically you should aim to collect, and comment on, six articles during session.

The most important element in assessment is the quality of the the comment on the articles. These don't have to be long, perhaps a couple of paragraphs on average, but they should discuss the merits of the journalism, what you learnt from it, what you think about it (including whether you disagree or think it is bad journalism), etc etc.

You may include photocopies of the journal articles instead of the original copy if you wish. The quality and insight of your commentary is the most important element of the assessment.

Portfolios are to be handed in (to the box outside Room 129, Old Main Building) by the deadline at the end of session. Please include the cover sheet with your submission.

You may also wish to enter your portfolio for the Heinz Harant Challenge Prize. A prize of $1,000, awarded twice yearly, has been established especially for work done by students in the UNSW General Education Program. The prize commemorates one of the University’s earliest alumni and most devoted supporters, the late Heinz Harant, a long-serving member of the University Council and board member of University Union until his death in 1992. It is called ‘The Heinz Harant Challenge Prize’ because challenging orthodoxy was the driving spirit of Heinz Harant’s life and the prize attempts to recognise this belief.

The prize recognises challenging and original thinking in work submitted for assessment in a General Education course. Students may submit their own work of high standard if they feel that it meets the spirit of the prize. Entry forms are available from NewSouth Q and work must be submitted within one month of the close of the session in which the course is offered (note this only applies for the Session 1 and 2 courses, not the Summer Session course for which the prize is not available). The first Heinz-Harant prize was won by Nicola Flint, a Commerce student, for her portfolio in the 1998 Session I Astronomy course.

Summary of what you have to do to pass the course!

  1. Attend lectures - while not compulsory, this should be where you learn interesting things!
  2. Buy or otherwise establish access to a recommended textbook. Note that some of the content of the Discovering the Universe textbook is available on-line at
  3. During the session, maintain steady progress on your portfolio.
  4. Fill out and return (by about week 7, as advised by the lecturer) the availability form for tutorials and night classes.
  5. Complete the online test.
  6. Attend night classes and hand in the worksheet.
  7. Prepare the 10-12 minute oral presentation.
  8. Attended two tutorials, and give your oral presentation in one of them.
  9. Hand in your completed portfolio, with an attached assignment cover sheet obtainable from the lecturer.


Text and Reference Books

There are several excellent text books available (listed below) which complement the lectures.  It is recommended that you use one of these when attempting the assignments.  Lectures will be based on Discovering the Universe, which also contains an interactive CD that accompanies the text.

You may also want to check out what else is available in the UNSW Bookshop and the UNSW Library (e.g. try typing "astronomy" in the catalogue search engines to see what is available).


This course is available to students from the Faculty of Science.

The course is not available with PHYS2160 (Astronomy) or PHYS3160 (Astrophysics).  Note that  GENS4003 (Cosmology) is no longer an exclusion for this course.  You may like to take this if you wish to learn about Cosmology, the study of the Universe as a whole.  If you have enjoyed this course you may also like to do GENS4014 (Are We Alone?) and/or GENS4015 (Brave New World). Further information on these can be found on the School of Physics website at

Continual course improvement

Please note that periodically we will gather student evaluative feedback on the course, using among other means, UNSW's Course and Teaching Evaluation and Improvement (CATEI) Process. Student feedback is taken seriously, and continual improvements are made to the course based in part on such feedback.

Administrative Matters

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the presentation of the thoughts or work of another as one’s own.*  Examples include:

For the purposes of this policy, submitting an assessment item that has already been submitted for academic credit elsewhere may be considered plagiarism.

Knowingly permitting your work to be copied by another student may also be considered to be plagiarism.

Note that an assessment item produced in oral, not written, form, or involving live presentation, may similarly contain plagiarised material.

The inclusion of the thoughts or work of another with attribution appropriate to the academic discipline does not amount to plagiarism.

The Learning Centre website is main repository for resources for staff and students on plagiarism and academic honesty.  These resources can be located via:

The Learning Centre also provides substantial educational written materials, workshops, and tutorials to aid students, for example, in:

Individual assistance is available on request from The Learning Centre.

Students are also reminded that careful time management is an important part of study and one of the identified causes of plagiarism is poor time management.  Students should allow sufficient time for research, drafting, and the proper referencing of sources in preparing all assessment items.

* Based on that proposed to the University of Newcastle by the St James Ethics Centre.  Used with kind permission from the University of Newcastle
† Adapted with kind permission from the University of Melbourne.