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Astronomy 310 - Stellar Astrophysics

  1. Basic Information
  2. Course Overview
  3. Classes
  4. Textbook
  5. Software
  6. Homework
  7. Final Exam
  8. Supplementary Notes

Basic Information

  • Instructor: Professor Rich Townsend
  • Contact:
    • Phone: (608) 262 1752
    • Office: 4402 Sterling Hall
    • Email: townsend AT astro DOT wisc DOT edu
    • Mailbox: 3rd floor, Sterling Hall
  • Times/Location: 09:55 am – 10:45am, Mon, Wed, Fri in 3425 Sterling Hall (Note: the location given on the UW course listing is incorrect!)
  • Website: You're already here!
  • Office hours: Tue 2pm-3pm, Thu 12pm-1pm, other times by appointment

Course Overview

Stars are the fundamental building blocks of the Universe. They are the principal source of electromagnetic radiation at many wavelengths, including visible light. By injecting vast amounts of energy and momentum into their surroundings, they act as drivers for the evolution of their host galaxies. Likewise, through their creation of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, they are ultimately responsible for the existence of life as we know it.

Stellar astrophysics — the study of the appearance, structure, composition, and evolution of stars — is one of the resounding successes of modern physics. It brings together elements from almost every sub-field of physics (from atomic and nuclear physics, through to classical mechanics and relativity), allowing us to understand in surprising detail what goes on deep inside an object that, to us, is a mere pinprick of light in the sky.


Classes take place from 9:55am to 10:45am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, in 3425 Sterling Hall. The first class is on Wednesday September 2nd, and the last on Monday December 14th. However, the classes will not meet on the following days:

  • Monday September 7th — Labor Day
  • Friday November 27th — Thanksgiving Recess

Additional no-class days may have to be implemented if the H1N1 virus (Swine 'flu) becomes problematic during the fall; see here for a discussion of UW-Madison's preparations for this eventuality.


The required textbook for the class is An Introduction to Modern Stellar Astrophysics, by Dale Ostlie & Bradley Carroll. Please make sure you have the second edition; the first edition still uses 'legacy' units (centimeters-grams-seconds), and will be confusing to those raised on SI units.

The book is organized into two parts. Part I discusses the tools of astronomy, covering topics such as coordinate systems, celestial mechanics, telescopes, and the basic properties of light. The course will primarily use chapters 3 and 5 from this part.

Part II discusses the nature of stars. It begins with the measurement of stellar parameters from their observable properties (positions, spectra, luminosities), and then proceeds to examine the physical principles governing the atmospheres and interiors of stars. These principles are used to understand how stars form, how they evolve, and how they die. The course will use most of the chapters comprising this part.


Apart from various simple cases, calculating stellar interior models requires a computer code (program). For the purposes of the class, I've created an on-line structure and evolution code, EZ-Web, which you can find here. During the course I'll be giving full instructions on how to use EZ-Web.


Bi-weekly homework assignments contribute toward 60% of the final class grade. Assignments are issued every other Monday, and are due on the Friday of the following week. To save paper, I won't be handed out print copies of the questions; rather, they will be posted below as PDF files on the day when they are issued.

The assignment schedule is as follows:

Completed manuscripts should be placed in my mail box on the 3rd floor of Sterling Hall (outside the elevator) before the beginning of the 9:55am Friday class. Alternatively, they may be given to me in person during the class. Manuscripts that are handed in late will be graded with a 20% penalty if less than week late; if longer than a week, they will not be graded, and a zero mark will be entered into my books.

I encourage students to collaborate on their homework assignments; however, verbatim copying of manuscripts or data amounts to plagiarism, and is not acceptable. Please consult with me if you are unsure where to draw the line with collaborative work.

Final Exam

The 2-hour final exam contributes 40% toward the final class grade. This exam occurs at 10:05am-12:05pm on Saturday December 19th, in Van Vleck B129 (the Math Department). The exam will follow a traditional closed-book, written-answer format.

Supplementary Notes

Updated 2009-12-13 23:12:09