Astronomy
Chair: Andrea K. Dobson
Jessica Sutter
About the Department
Courses are concerned with the planets, stars, and galaxies which compose the physical universe, and with the techniques for investigating the nature of these objects. The introductory courses contribute to a general understanding of our place in the universe. The advanced courses have frequent relevance for students in physics, chemistry, and other sciences.
Students interested in graduate work in astronomy are encouraged to major in PhysicsAstronomy or in Physics with an Astronomy minor, since most graduate schools look for the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in Physics. Some students with other interests also have designed individual combined majors such as Astrobiology.
Learning Goals
Upon graduation, a student will be able to:
 Clearly and accurately articulate in qualitative terms, both orally and in writing, our current understanding of various components of the Universe and describe the observations on which that understanding is based.
 Read and comprehend moderately technical astronomical literature.
 Solve problems using disciplinespecific knowledge and techniques.
Distribution
For students who started at Whitman College prior to Fall 2024, selected courses in Astronomy count toward the sciences and/or quantitative analysis distribution areas.
For students who start at Whitman College in Fall 2024 or later, please refer to the General Studies section for a full list of courses that count toward each distribution area.
Programs of Study

AstronomyGeology Major 
PhysicsAstronomy Major 
Astronomy Major 
Astronomy Minor
Courses
This course offers an introduction to our present knowledge of the universe and the historical development of humanity’s changing understanding of the cosmos. Emphasis not only on the nature of planets, stars, and galaxies, but also on the evolutionary processes which occur in the universe, including cosmology and the origin of the elements, the formation and life cycles of stars, and the development of planetary systems. Three lecture/lab sessions per week. Not open to physical science majors. Astronomy 110 does not count toward Astronomy or Astronomycombined majors.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Astronomy 110L.
A survey of planets and their motions, planetary satellites, comets, meteorites, and interplanetary material. Several problem sets and exams, short research paper, and one evening lab session each week. Offered in rotation with Astronomy 178, 179.
Required: Three years of high school mathematics and one year of high school physics; or consent of instructor.
Recommended: Mathematics 124 or 125; and 126.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Astronomy 177L.
An introduction to the properties of stars, their motions, and their distributions in space. Several problem sets and exams, short research paper, and one evening lab session each week. Offered in rotation with Astronomy 177, 179.
Required: Three years of high school mathematics and one year of high school physics; or consent of instructor.
Recommended: Mathematics 124 or 125; and 126.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Astronomy 178L.
An introduction to the structure of galaxies and to the largescale structure and evolution of the universe. Several problem sets and exams, short research paper, and one evening lab session each week. Offered in rotation with Astronomy 177, 178.
Required: Three years of high school mathematics and one year of high school physics; or consent of instructor.
Recommended: Mathematics 124 or 125; and 126.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Astronomy 179L.
A survey of cosmological discoveries and their impact on our understanding of our location in space and time. Several problem sets and exams, short research paper and oral presentation, and occasional outdoor labs. This course applies to the science distribution area, but not science with a laboratory.
one previous college course in astronomy
Required: Three years of high school mathematics and one year of high school physics.
Recommended: One previous collegelevel course in Astronomy.
A survey of planetary systems around other stars and current research into the possibilities for life elsewhere in the universe. Several problem sets and exams, short research paper and oral presentation, and occasional outdoor labs. This course applies to the science distribution area, but not science with a laboratory.
one previous college course in astronomy
Required: Three years of high school mathematics and one year of high school physics.
Recommended: One previous collegelevel course in Astronomy.
Astronomical study and research is heavily dependent on the use of computers for analyzing data as well as communicating that data to collaborators, other scientists, and the public. We regularly carry powerful computers in our pockets, ostensibly to make telephone calls, but the normal course of education does not teach how to undertake technical tasks on the computer. In this class, students will gain proficiency in many areas required for professional proficiency in astronomy. Namely, this will include Linux use and file management using a variety of desktop managers, typesetting documents in LaTeX, construction of scientific figures, and an introduction to astronomical programing in FORTRAN and python.
Astronomy 177, 178, or 179.
Of interest to majors in physics or physicsastronomy, this course considers the application of the principles of atomic structure and the radiation laws to the interpretation of the spectra of stars and nebulae; the physical principles underlying the study of the structure of stars, energy generation by thermonuclear reactions, and nucleosynthesis; and theoretical and observational aspects of stellar evolution. Several problem assignments and a midterm examination. Offered in alternate years with Astronomy 320.
Required: Astronomy 178 and Physics 156; or consent of instructor.
Recommended: Physics 245.
Intended for physicsastronomy majors but also open to majors in related sciences. The constituents and structure of our own and other galaxies, the nature of quasars and active galaxies, and the largescale structure of the universe itself. Reading assignments will be made in various books and scientific journals. Several problem assignments and a midterm test. Offered in alternate years with Astronomy 310.
Required: Astronomy 179 and Physics 156; or consent of instructor.
Recommended: Physics 245.
Intended for majors in physicsastronomy and related sciences. The study of the universe: how it originated, the formation and evolution of structures, the curvature of space and time. Several problem sets, exams, research paper. Offered in alternate years.
Required: Astronomy 179 and Physics 156; or consent of instructor.
Recommended: Physics 245.
Intended for majors in astronomy, astronomygeology, and related sciences. The study of solar system objects: interiors, surfaces, atmospheres, and orbital mechanics. Several problem sets, exams, research paper.
Astronomy 177, Geology 110 or 120, and Physics 155; or consent of instructor.
Intended for majors in astronomy, physicsastronomy, and related sciences. The study of observational astronomy across the full electromagnetic spectrum as well as gravitational waves. Specifically looking at detector technologies, telescope design, data reduction, the current state of the art in both groundbased and spacebased observational astronomy missions, and the physics governing emission across the spectrum. Several problem sets, exams, project.
Astronomy 177, 178, and 179; or consent of instructor.
We will learn Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and apply it to neutron stars and black holescompact objects at the frontier of human knowledge about the fundamental nature of space, time, and matter. John Wheeler famously characterized General Relativity as saying, "Space tells matter how to move. Matter tells space how to curve." The theory is written in the language of differential geometry, so along the way to articulating and using the theory, we will introduce mathematical constructs from this branch of mathematics. We will necessarily develop our formal mathematical reasoning ability, and both linear algebra and multivariate calculus will serve as essential background knowledge. At the same time, we will take a *physics first* approach, and introduce needed differential geometry concepts gradually, applying them to physics problems at each earliest opportunity. Toward the end of the course, using knowledge gained in the first portion of the class, students will work on projects relating to contemporary research on black holes or neutron stars. May be elected as Physics 301. Distribution area: none. Prerequisites: Mathematics 225 and Physic 156. Corequisites: Mathematics 240 and Physics 245.
Discussion and directed reading and/or observational work on a topic of interest to the individual student.
Consent of instructor.
Oral reports by students on reading and research projects. Faculty and visiting scientist guest lectures. Discussion of recent works of importance to the field and problemsolving exercises. No examinations. One meeting per week. May be repeated for a maximum of two credits.
Consent of instructor.
An advanced interdisciplinary independent study project for astronomy or astronomycombined majors; students wishing to do a senior research project should choose project advisors and propose an interdisciplinary topic during the second semester of their junior year.
Consent of instructor.
Preparation of an honors thesis. Required of and limited to senior honors candidates in astronomy.
Admission to honors candidacy.