Information about the Major

If you are thinking about majoring in Astronomy, you should go to the departmental office, Merrill 214, and ask to talk to Professor Follette. In the meantime, this page provides an outline of the requirements for a major. (The catalog is the official word on these matters, so read it, too.)  

The Astronomy major is designed to introduce students to the computational techniques, statistical tools, instrumentation, and physical principles that underlie modern Astronomy.  Computational and statistical techniques are introduced in the first course in the major sequence, ASTR 200 (Practical Astronomy), and further honed in ASTR 228 (Introductory Astrophysics) and ASTR 352 (Advanced Astrophysics). ASTR 228 and 352 also draw on physical principles introduced in the three course required physics sequence (PHYS 123, 124 and 225).

A joint Five College Astronomy Department offers courses beyond those offered at Amherst. All required courses are taught at Amherst, but students are also encouraged to take elective courses at the four other institutions, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts (http://www.astro.umass.edu/about/fcad/). As a result of this five college partnership, students can enjoy the benefits of a first-rate liberal arts education while maintaining association with a research department of international stature. Students may pursue independent theoretical and observational work in association with any member of the Five College Astronomy Department, either during the academic year or the summer term. The facilities of all five institutions are available to departmental majors. Students may search for Astronomy courses through the Five College online catalog.  The Website is https://www.fivecolleges.edu/academics/courses 

Once you have decided to declare the major, you will need to obtain the appropriate form from the Registrar's page, complete it, and have the current Physics and Astronomy Department chair, as well as your current advisor, sign it, before returning it to the Registrar.

The Astronomy major requires 11 total courses, in several areas:

Required Courses in Mathematics and Physics

  • Mathematics 111: Introduction to the Calculus
  • Mathematics 121: Intermediate Calculus
  • Physics 123: The Newtonian Synthesis: Dynamics of Particles and Systems, Waves (or Physics 116)
  • Physics 124: The Maxwellian Synthesis: Dynamics of Charges and Fields, Optics (or Physics 117)
  • Physics 225: Modern Physics

Required Astronomy Courses

  • Astronomy 200: Practical Astronomy
  • Astronomy 228 (FC28): Introductory Astrophysics: Stars and the Interstellar Medium
  • Astronomy 352 (FC52): Advanced Astrophysics: Galaxies and Cosmology

Elective Courses

Along with the 8 required courses, a major must complete 3 elective courses according to the following specifications:

  1. At least one elective course in Astronomy to satisfy a depth requirement in the major.
  2. At least two additional electives, one of which must be at the 300-level or higher, e.g., a 300-level Astronomy course, one selected from the list below, or one approved by the department.

Depending on background, Astronomy majors may place out of several of these courses. Students who have placed out of calculus or introductory physics are excused from taking those courses. Astronomy majors may place out of up to two courses without having to replace those courses. Students placing out of more than two courses must replace all but two of those courses with additional Astronomy courses numbered 200 or higher, approved Physics courses numbered 200 or higher, or other courses approved by the Department to complete the major.

Approved electives

Astronomy is a data-driven, interdisciplinary science. Any of the following courses may be used to fulfill the elective requirements.

  • Astronomy 220 (FC20): [Topical Courses, e.g., Black Holes, Astrobiology, etc.]
  • Astronomy 223 (FC23): Planetary Science
  • Astronomy 224 (FC24): Stellar Astronomy
  • Astronomy 225 (FC25): Galaxies and Dark Matter
  • Astronomy 226 (FC26): Cosmology
  • Astronomy 301 (FC) : Writing about Astronomy
  • Astronomy 330:  (FC30): [Topical Courses, e.g. Exoplanet Atmospheres, High Energy Astrophysics]
  • Astronomy 335 (FC35) : Astrophysics II: Stellar and Planetary Structure
  • Astronomy 337 (FC37): Observational Techniques I
  • Astronomy 339 (FC39) : Astronomy in a Global Context
  • Astronomy 341 (FC41): Observational Techniques II
  • Astronomy 444 (FC44): Radiative Processes
  • Astronomy 445 (FC45): Astrophysical Dynamics
  • Physics 226: Signals and Noise Laboratory
  • Physics 227: Methods of Theoretical Physics
  • Physics 230: Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
  • Physics 343: Dynamics
  • Physics 347: Electromagnetic Theory I
  • Physics 348: Quantum Mechanics I
  • Physics 490: [Special Topics]
  • Chemistry 351: Quantum Chemistry and Spectroscopy
  • Chemistry 361: Physical Chemistry
  • Geology 331: Paleoclimatology
  • Geology 341: Environmental and Solid Earth Geophysics
  • Geology 431: Geochemistry
  • Geology 450: Seminar in Biogeochemistry
  • Mathematics 230: Intermediate Statistics
  • Mathematics 260: Differential Equations
  • Mathematics 272: Linear Algebra with Applications
  • Mathematics 284: Numerical Analysis
  • Mathematics 320: Wavelet and Fourier Analysis
  • Mathematics 335: Time Series Analysis and Applications
  • Math/Stats 360: Probability
  • Mathematics 365: Stochastic Processes
  • Math/Stats 370: Theoretical Statistics
  • Statistics 220: Bayesian Modeling and Inference
  • Statistics 225: Nonparametric Statisitcs
  • Statistics 230: Intermediate Statistics
  • Statistics 240: Multivariate Data Analysis
  • Statistics 495: Advanced Data Analysis
  • Computer Science 201: Data Structures and Algorithms I
  • Computer Science 247: Machine Learning
  • Computer Science 301: Data Structures and Algorithms II

To gain approval for an alternate elective, students must file a petition for the Department to consider. To submit a petition, email the Chair of the Department with relevant information about the course to be considered, for example, a syllabus from a recent semester of the course or a link to the course description.

Preparation for Graduate School in Astronomy

Students wishing to pursue graduate work in Astronomy should consider a double major in physics and should endeavor to complete as many of the following additional courses as possible: Physics 230, Physics 343, Physics 347, Physics 348, Math 211, Math 260, and Math 271 or 272. In addition, a solid foundation in Computer Science and Statistics are highly recommended. 

Comprehensive Evaluation

The Comprehensive Evaluation for the Astronomy major will consist of an oral presentation of a published scientific paper (selected in consultation with Amherst faculty), and will take place in the second semester of a student’s senior year.

All students majoring in Astronomy must also attend at least nine public astronomy lectures during the senior year. Colloquium schedules are online here:

Honors Program

Students who wish to receive departmental Honors should enroll in ASTR 498 and 499 in addition to completing the other requirements for the major. To enter the Honors program, a student must attain an average grade of at least B– in all required courses taken through the end of the junior year, or receive department approval. At the end of the first semester of the senior year the student’s progress on the Honors problem will determine the advisability of continuation in the Honors program. 

The aim of Departmental Honors work in Astronomy is to provide the student an opportunity to pursue, under faculty direction, in-depth research into a project in experimental and/or theoretical astronomy/astrophysics. Current areas of research in the department include direct imaging of extrasolar planetary systems, circumstellar disk imaging and computational modeling, adaptive optics instrumentation, and next generation telescope mission design.   Additional opportunities within the Five College Astronomy Department include planetary science, star formation, molecular clouds, galactic structure, galaxy evolution and cosmology. Subject to availability of resources and faculty interest, Honors projects arising out of students’ particular interests are encouraged. 

Students must submit a written thesis on the Honors work a few weeks before the end of their final semester (in late April for spring graduation). Students give a preliminary presentation of their work during the first semester, and a final presentation at the end of the second semester. In addition, they take oral examinations devoted primarily to the thesis work. The departmental recommendation for the various levels of Honors will be based on the student’s record, Departmental Honors work, Comprehensive Examination, and Oral Examination on the thesis.