How can i get basics of astronomy

Red giants, black holes - how do we know all of this? Methods of astronomy for non-physicists

Winter semester 2016/2017

When: Thursdays, October 20, 2016 to January 26, 2017, from 4:15 p.m. (s.t.) to 6:00 p.m.

Where: Lecture hall 2 in the Kirchhoff Institute for Physics, INF 227 (location maps)

Who: Dr. Markus Pössel (HdA) and Prof. Dr. Björn Malte Schäfer (ZAH)

Audience: All those interested in astronomy, especially from subjects other than physics; Guest auditors (notes on registration for guest auditors)

Examination achievements: see below

The subject of the lecture is the methods of astronomy. As a science that can almost never manipulate its objects of investigation and examine them directly experimentally, astronomy is dependent on observation. What can we conclude from observations? What information from the cosmos do astronomers use? What is the effect of the fact that we almost never follow cosmic developments in real time, but can only infer them indirectly from a kind of snapshot?

We go well beyond the popular science level, but will use our mathematical tools sparingly and concentrate on physical arguments and descriptive representations.

Basic school knowledge of physics and mathematics as well as an interest in astronomy are required. Previous participation in astronomy for non-physicists is desirable, but not mandatory. If you want to refresh your basic astronomical knowledge, you can do so in this ten-part series of blog posts by Markus Pössel: Basic astronomical knowledge 1: night sky, light pollution, observations (further parts linked from there)


  • Distant observers: The special role of astronomers, "No experiments!" (almost!), telescopes and other means of observation, brightness measurements, astrometry from antiquity to the Gaia mission
  • Planck's astronomical legacy: the black body as a basic model for stars, dust clouds and other astronomical objects
  • Insightful line patterns: spectroscopy, spectral lines, the development of astrochemistry, line shifts and more, the most important tool for astronomers
  • When the world became mechanical: Newton and his successors, perturbation theory and the discovery of Neptune, mechanical model systems, stability
  • We only see a cosmic snapshot. Statistics in astronomy, from frequency diagrams to historical development, Hertzsprung-Russell diagram as a key to stellar physics, stages of stellar evolution
  • Simulated universes in the computer: N-particle simulations, stellar atmospheres, fluids and radiation, simulating the universe as a whole, artificial observations
  • A new framework: general relativity, spacetime, black holes and other compact objects
  • Cosmology: Expanding universe, hot big bang, cosmic background radiation
  • Statistics and Cosmic History: Gravitational lenses, deep surveys and other ways to track down cosmic history (including entities such as dark matter and dark energy)

Examination achievements

  • Only non-physicists can get a certificate for this event
  • For a certificate (2 LP) with a grade, an oral examination of approx. 40 minutes is taken, for an ungraded certificate (2 LP) an examination of approx. 20 minutes is taken
  • Students who only want to have an attendance slip, please show us the relevant excerpt from the examination regulations after the first lecture. The basis is then the attendance list that is passed around at each lecture. Up to two missed appointments with justification / evidence are permitted

Materials for the lecture

  • Organizational matters (MP, 20.10.16) 59.21 kB
  • Overview (MP, 10/20/16) 6.9 MB
  • Astronomical Observations I (MP, October 27, 2016) 5.87 MB
  • Astronomical Observations II (MP, November 3rd, 2016) 36.2 MB
  • What information does radiation provide? (MP, November 17, 2016) 16.98 MB
  • Modeling astronomical objects I: Point particles and solids (MP, 11/24/2016) 2.38 MB
  • Handout on: Modeling astronomical objects I (MP, 24.11.2016) 468.79 kB
  • Modeling astronomical objects II: Stars (MP, December 8, December 15 and December 22, 2016) 74.7 MB
  • Handout on: Modeling Astronomical Objects II (MP, December 15, 2016) 298.4 kB
  • Observations with the VLT (Carolin Liefke, 1.12.2016) 5.9 MB
  • Distance measurement and maps (MP, December 22nd, 2016 and January 12th, 2017) 14.96 MB
  • Relativistic Astrophysics (MP, January 19 and January 26, 2017) 30.13 MB
  • Handout to: Relativistic Astrophysics (Cosmology), 26.1.2017 82.18 kB
  • Summary (MP, January 26, 2017) 6.76 MB