Principles of Astronomy is copyright protected, is the sole property of the author (Dr Jamie Love © 1997 - 2011) and is sold exclusively by Merlin Science. Any form of reproduction by any media is strictly forbidden.
In this sample, only the first quarter of the course is available. The remaining section are included in the complete hypertextbook, which does not have the advertisements displayed here in this sample. To learn more about the course and hypertextbook, visit the Principles of Astronomy website.

Getting the Most Out of Your Astronomy Course

by Dr Jamie Love © 1997 - 2011

Hello, I'm your instructor - Dr Jamie Love.

Is that your real name and do you really look like that?

Yes! My name is Jamie Love and I have a PhD (in Biochemistry). So I'm called "Dr Love". (Stop laughing!) And, yes, I do look like that but bigger and I rarely wear my lab coat when teaching.

What's a Biochemist doing teaching astronomy?

Astronomy has been my hobby for over 20 years and I have taught the subject to a wide variety of students, both online and in "real life". I'm an amateur astronomer but with enough scientific background to understand the science. Most importantly, I am a well-experienced science teacher. I have written several self-learning science courses on the web and in book form. But enough about me, let's talk about how the course is structured and what to expect so you will get the most out of these lessons.

This course is designed to be a healthy mix of both observational astronomy and academic astronomy. To achieve that, and to make the learning more interesting, I try to teach the identification along with the concepts. I have chosen specific topics to coincide with things you can actually observe (most of the time). You'll learn how to identify the bright stars and obvious constellations as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. You'll also get a mini-lesson about the night sky as seen from the South Pole because we cannot ignore the wonderful sites down under. By the end of this course you'll have gained an understanding of astronomy to the level expected of a first-semester, university-level astronomy course but pretty light on the math.

Speaking of math, I sometimes introduce an equation or math explanation of how something is determined. That information is for those who want the math but it is not required that you understand it. Regardless, read through it. You may be surprised at what you can learn!
I don't want to frighten you with math that might be too complicated but I don't want to ignore an opportunity to increase your understanding. Also, for folks wanting even more math, I suggest you visit some of the websites I recommend. People who take their astronomy seriously learn a lot of math but I do not want to go into that type of depth here. Instead, I will just show you some examples that you might find useful and interesting.
The bottom line is that you do not need to understand the equations and math in order to enjoy this course.

Great! But exactly what are you teaching?

Astronomy can be taught in various ways. My course will not turn you into a professional astronomer but it will give you the information you need to identify obvious stars and constellations. You will also learn how stars "live and die", unusual astronomical events (variable stars, quasars, black holes, etc.), formation of stars, the Solar System and galaxies, movements of and distances to stars and galaxies, some of the tools and techniques astronomers use to learn about the universe, and a lot more. The Contents Page says it all!

My lessons will give only a brief overview of objects in our Solar System because "planetology" is a specialty of its own involving not only astronomy but also chemistry, geology and meteorology. I highly recommend The Nine Planets as additional reading and to complete your education in astronomy. You can find it, and other supplementary information for our course at Principles of Astronomy's

The most important thing to understand is to NEVER STARE AT THE SUN! It can easily blind you! If there is one thing you must learn it is to NEVER STARE AT THE SUN! I will repeat this serious warning several times throughout this course (to the point of really irritating you) because Sun-induced blindness is one lesson you do not want to learn first hand!


Where was I? Ah, yes.

This course is structured very differently from most astronomy courses because I base it upon my experience of having taught "hobby astronomy". Most of my students want to know, "What's that star?", and I am happy to tell them. The next question might be, "Why is it red?", and I explain that it is a red giant. They ask, "What's that mean?", so I teach them about how stars age. This leads to more questions and I answer them.
Other astronomy books separate these topics into systematic lessons based upon the physics, but my students usually don't think like a physics book. "Professional science students" (to give them a name) can force themselves to stay awake through long, complicated explanations in order to get to the good stuff. By integrating our lessons with observations, whenever possible, I lead you through a different route that eventually covers the same topics.
For example, early on I will tell you why stars have different brightnesses but I will not explain the physics of a star until the April Lessons. In April I will tell you about how nuclear fusion fuels our Sun and other stars but I don't try to cram all of Sun physics into a single lesson. In May I will tell you about the aurora and that requires an understanding of some extra Sun physics, so it's at that point I will teach you about the Sun's magnetic field, sunspots, solar flares and the solar wind. In July I will teach you about eclipses and what can be seen during an eclipse so I wait until then to tell you about the interesting features of the Sun that can be seen during an eclipse. (And, you really cannot understand the eclipse anyway until I have taught you about orbits in the June Lessons.) All this talk about the Sun ends with thie reminder - NEVER STARE AT THE SUN!

OK. What's this about the months? Must I follow a schedule?

Yes and no.
I originally wrote this course as a one year program that begins in January and follows the night sky as it moves throughout the year. Many folks asked that I tweak the lessons a bit in order to make them relevant year round. That I have done. You can start the lessons anytime of year but understand that some of the objects will not be in the positions I suggest unless you are viewing them during that "titled month".

What's that?

At least each month go to Principles of Astronomy's and leap to the Night Sky This Month where you will find information about important events for that month and a large image of the night sky, soon after sunset. This page is written as a kind of "stand alone" section so folks can use it at anytime during their lessons. Visit it monthly for the entire year and you will have seen it all! I assume that the people coming to the Night Sky this Month have not read the lesson (yet) for that month so I include a kind of "astro-lite" lesson in order to make their viewing educational. That same material is covered again, and in more detail, in the hypertextbook. That means you won't miss the excitement of an August meteor shower because you are still studying the March Lessons!
It would be unfortunate if you missed something that started very early in the month, so I also suggest that you also check out the Night Sky Next Month each month in order to plan your observatons.
The Sky Now will tell you about the current observations that you can make of the Moon and planets.
By visiting the Night Sky pages you will add extra observations to your education.

So, to answer your question, you can start the lessons at any time and use the Online Supplements to help plan your nights. However, I strongly recommend that you go through the astronomy lessons in your hypertextbook in the order that they are given. Go through all of the "January Lessons" (at anytime of the year that suits you) and then move onto the February Lessons. And so on.
As you will see, the course starts off by teaching you the basics and then builds upon them, so you are better off learning the topics in order. However, I understand that you might want to jump to a topic that is in the news or of sudden interest so, I have written the courses to be slightly independent from previous lessons. If you skip ahead to black holes you will find that I reiterate some of the most important basic information needed to understand that lesson and provide you with hyperlinks that can take you to those lessons where I teach you all the details. You can also use these internal hyperlinks (links that are to other parts of your hypertextbook) to review materials that are relevant to the current lesson.

If all that sounds complicated, don't worry. It will become obvious as we go along.
Summary - learn the lessons in the correct order, starting with the "January Lessons", (which you can start in any month).

Three months make one Quarter and there are four Quarters in this course. After each Quarter you can take the exams.

What exams?

After you have completed each Quarter take the pair of Self Evaluation Exams.
One covers the Academic Astronomy and the other tests your knowledge of Observational Astronomy . Each exam consists of 20 questions with 4 (multiple) choices. When you choose an answer, a "pop-up" response immediately indicates whether the answer is right or wrong and provides some feedback. This immediate feedback is a learning tool so read each reply carefully. I suggest that the first time you take the test, you simply stick with your original answers, complete the test and submit it for a grade. This will give you an idea of what you have learned so far and is more like a "regular" test. (Whatever that is.) Your answers will be graded and each one will be scored Correct or Wrong. Once you have the score and the list of incorrect answers you can use your "Back Button" to return to your exam and correct your errors. (The "scorecard" will not print out. However, sophisticated users will know that they can capture a screen or use some Microsoft tricks to copy the scores into a Word document that will print. Exactly how to do that depends upon your system and your understanding of what I am talking about. So, I will not go into it.) The second time with the exam you can carefully read each response, learn from it and choose the right answer - then submit your perfect score for a final grade.
Important note : on some browsers when you use the page down button to scroll down you will end up shifting your checked answer to the next one down the line! If that happens to you, use your mouse to scroll - not the keyboard.
Another important note : you can take the exams as many times as you like but there is no way to save your answers. Once you turn off the web browser your answers are gone forever.

These exams WILL NOT WORK if your JavaScript is OFF. Most people surf the web with JavaScript "on" - that is - JavaScript "enabled". Only the most paranoid surfer refuses to run JavaScript. (JavaScript is NOT java or cookies.) Your browser's JavaScript must be enabled in order to give feedback and score the exams.

Click this button to see if your javascript is working.
If you did NOT get a "JavaScript alert box" pop up when you clicked that button, your JavaScript is not enabled and you cannot take the exams. How do you turn JavaScript on? Well that depends on your browser but it is usually somewhere in the Preferences or Security settings. Poke around and enable your browser’s JavaScript, test it on that button and then you will be ready for the exam.

Do I need a telescope?

No. You do not need a telescope but binoculars are a good idea. Everything you need is in your hypertextbook. You need not buy anything else.

What about extra books?

No. You do not need anything except this hypertextbook! (Phew! )

Also, at Principles of Astronomy's you will find some free software and recommended websites. These websites and programs are only extras to our course. I have no control over them so please do not ask me to rewrite a program or change a website. You do not need these websites or programs but they are free for you to use as a resource.

There is one thing extra you must have. You definitely need a notebook!
Reading and scrolling down the screen is no way to learn (anything). You must interact with the reading. Taking notes is a great way to do that so jot down ideas and definitions. Draw your own star maps so you can take your notebook with you outside in order to help you find the objects we talk about in these lessons.
I will occasionally give you something that you can print out but those "handouts" are few and far between. There is no substitute for a notebook that YOU create as YOU learn.

Some students (in earlier courses) asked that I provide a "summary sheet" at the end of each lesson. I understand why they would want a summary sheet but I don't provide one because such summaries cause most students to approach the lessons in a lazy way. ("I'll just drift though this complicated stuff and focus my attention on the summary.") Instead, I encourage YOU to write YOUR OWN NOTES and SUMMARIES because that way YOU learn how to summarize the information and that is an important learning experience. [This isn't simply my opinion. I have found it to be a fact. I developed distant learning courses in Chemistry and Genetics and I found that students go straight for the summary. They end up trying to memorize "high density information" but it doesn't sink in.]
You'll notice, however, that at the end of some lessons I reiterate the most important bits. Sometimes. That's my compromise.

But I need some directions! An idea of what to expect. A framework!

I agree. I have created a Study Guide for your lessons. This Guide lists

  1. the terms that will be introduced. This is the "academic" side of astronomy. You may already know some of these terms (like latitude or zenith) but I assume my students know nothing and that way no one feels left behind. Occasionally you will see that a term from an earlier lessons is "repeated". That's because new, additional information is being taught in that lesson so it's appropriate to include it in the Study Guide. Use this part of the Guide to help focus your attention on the new words I am using but DO NOT assume that this list of words is all that the lesson is about! Many lessons teach concepts that require you to really think about the subject rather than learn a new word. For example, only five new terms are introduced in your lesson on pulsars but there is a lot of descriptive physics taught. Don't let the short list of terms fool you.
  2. the astronomical objects that will be discussed. For the most part, this is a list of the stars and constellations you will learn in that lesson. However, astronomical objects also include things like nebula, moons, and other objects. I will teach you how to find most of these objects but some you will not be able to see because you are too far north, trying to find them at the wrong time of year, or they are too dim and distant to be seen without optical devices. It might seem unfair to tell you about a particular nebula or black hole that you cannot see but I introduce you to them (and their locations) because all astronomy students should to be aware of these important objects.
  3. the people who have contributed to astronomy. Frankly, this is not an important thing for you to "learn" but history puts science in perspective and brings life to the reading. Some objects and terms in astronomy are named after these people.
I also give a word count for each lesson. That might be a guide as to how much time you will spend on each lesson but don't treat it as important in you planning. Spend as much time as you like! Besides, a great deal of information and learning comes from the diagrams. (As the Chinese say, "a picture is worth a thousand words".)

Some students will want to print out the entire Study Guide but I think that misses the point. Instead I suggest that you use the Study Guide to jot down (on a piece of scrap paper) what you will learn in that lesson and then use that as a plan for writing in your notebook.

On the other hand, you might want to print out the glossary and list of objects. Both these lists cover the entire course and are in alphabetical order. You can use the glossary to create your own brief definitions and reminders of the terms you learn. You can use the object list as your notes about the qualities of the objects, like how bright they are, where they are located and special points of interest. You can also use the objects list as a "life list" - noting when you first saw each of these objects. (But the black hole might have to remain an empty entry! )

Tell me more about the observational astronomy.

Each month I will teach you a few new stars and constellations.

There are 88 constellations and countless stars but I will focus your attention on the obvious and important ones. By the end of the course you will have learned a great deal and you will know your way around the night sky. You'll be better prepared to use a telescope, join an astronomy club, impress your friends, understand which object is being discussed in a science (fiction) program or know where you are being taken if abducted by aliens. (Just kidding! )

I take advantage of the rotation of the night sky to present the new material. Each day (and night) the sky "rotates" a small amount so each evening sky is a little different. This "monthly rotation" sets the pace for the course and the reason they are clumped under different months.

Do I have to go outside to learn astronomy?

Goodness, yes! It's important to get outside and observe.
My computer generated images are accurate but they are tiny compared to the real sky and it's impossible to capture the sphere of the sky on a flat screen.

Your local weather conditions might make your observations more difficult and your exact location and time will slightly affect your view too. This is the reality of observational astronomy. You have to learn to identify stars and constellations when clouds hide some parts of the sky and when the overall conditions are less than perfect.

No one learns star identification looking at a computer screen (or book)! These images and lessons are meant to educate and guide you as you identify sights in the sky but experience is the best teacher. So, after each lesson, get outside on several different evenings throughout the month to apply what you have learned.

Does it matter that your location and mine are different!

Yes, it does, but it won't harm your education. However, you should be aware that there are minor differences. The international nature of the Internet adds a wee bit of complexity to observational astronomy because your location dictates your view of the night sky as well as exact times, and even dates, of some events.

Your view may be different from the reference latitude (37 degrees north) that I have chosen to make most of my maps and to present your lessons. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere you may feel cheated by my northern bias but you will still learn a lot. (In the December Lessons we take the plunge down south with a brief tour of the sky as seen from the South Pole.) Northerners may find that views towards the north and south horizons are slightly different depending upon your latitude.

I am not trying to be exact with times and dates because that is rarely needed for a course at this level. The dates for Equinoxes and Solstices, as well as meteor showers, etc. may be "off" by a day due to the difference between your longitude and mine. Do not take those dates as "gospel". I am only using them to illustrate the concepts anyway. Consult your local school, university or newspaper for exact times (assuming you need to know them).

What about the way things are spelled, pronounced, drawn, etc.

I am using American spelling and I do not even try to tell you how to pronounce the names of stars. Most star names are Arabic and most constellations are Latin or Greek. Many experts have their own pronunciations (based on local accents and bias). Just slowly give each name a try and chances are you will be in good company if you mispronounce it!

There are no rules about how to draw a constellation.
Constellations are just a convenient way to remember stars in the sky. Their names have been handed down through the generations but the exact lines connecting the stars change with each book and each expert. You will see some constellations drawn slightly differently elsewhere but don't let that concern you. The stars in a constellation can be linked together in many ways and you need not (cannot) connect them all together anyway.
If you don't like the lines I make, feel free to make up some of your own.
By the way, professional astronomers have divided each bit of sky into a constellation but that is far too much detail to bother with in this course.
One final word about constellations. They are supposed to look like various objects and some books will draw beautiful images in a ghost like pattern in order to help you imagine why they are named a certain way. I am not an artist and will not inflict my poor artwork on my students. Nor will I teach (in any detail) all the legends and history behind each constellation.

Any other things you do that may be different from other books or courses?


I've learned that some students become confused as to whether I am talking about a star or a constellation so to make it clear I will write stars in italics and constellations in capitals.
This is only my convenient shorthand way of keeping things clear. It is not official. You'll notice that I do not use this convention in the Night Sky websites because in that section you are getting the information the way it is meant to be understood by the "outside world".

Sometimes I present an image of the entire sky (everything above the horizon) and at other times I present only a portion of that image, perhaps magnified. It depends on what I am talking about and what I want to highlight as part of the lesson. There is no way to avoid this jumping around but I am sure you will not find it a problem. Just be aware that it happens. Besides, in real observations the clouds obscure some of the sky some of the time and these "snippets of sky" will get you use to that.

Sometimes I change the overall "brightness" of stars in an image to highlight certain features of a constellation but I always change the brightness of all the stars in the image the same relative amount. In other words, one image may show a constellation with only ten stars and later you will see a different image of the same constellation but now it has a lot of extra, dim stars and very bright stars where the first ten were.
This is not only a useful teaching aid but it is also a useful learning tool because some nights you will see only the brightest stars and other nights you'll see "all" of them! It depends on your local conditions.
In these lessons I select a brightness that shows enough of the sky to let you see what I am talking about without overwhelming you with all the dim ones. Later, I often show you more detail along with more information.

Your sky maps show west to the right, when viewing north. Is that correct? Or should I view the maps as a mirror image of the sky?

I can understand why you might think it odd but the images are shown correctly. We Earthbound folks are always taught that if you stand facing north, then your right shoulder is to the east, your left shoulder is to the west and your back is to the south. This view is reinforced by the way we look at maps - looking down on them from above because the map is usually on a table or in a book. Compasses are set up that way too.

Sky maps are different.
The "tradition" among astronomers is to imagine you are laying on the ground, face up of course - we're astronomers not geologists - with your head pointing north and your feet south. Your right shoulder now faces west and your left shoulder faces east. The Sun, planets and stars will rise on your left shoulder (in the east) and set on your right shoulder (in the west).

More importantly, if while laying in that position you hold the sky map up over you - with your right hand holding the map's west side and your left hand holding the map's east side - you would find that the map is positioned correctly and the stars are in the right place.

No mirror needed. Just imagination. But it does take a bit of rethinking and relearning how we imagine our orientation, so give it some thought.

Is there anything special about learning astronomy by computer?


You may need to adjust the brightness on your monitor in order to see the dimmest stars or the Milky Way. All my constellation lines are connected by stars so, if you don't see a star at the end of a line, increase your brightness.
This is also a useful learning tool. By dimming the brightness on your screen you can make the dimmest stars disappear. That lets you concentrate on the easy ones and also simulates conditions when thin clouds or the brightness of the Moon cause the dimmest stars to disappear. So feel free to fiddle with the brightness button on your monitor as you learn the images but be sure to return it to an appropriate brightness before moving on to the next image.

(Kids - ask the owner of the computer how to adjust the brightness and put it back the way you found it when you are done.)

Can you see the "Dimmest" star in this image? It is down and to the left of the "D" in "Dimmest". Remember, there will be a star at the end of each line I draw. Increase your monitor's brightness if you can't see the "Dimmest" star.

Then decrease the brightness until you can see only the "Bright" stars. They will form a triangle.

Now return the screen's brightness to a level that allows you to see the "Dimmest" star again. Notice that there are a lot of very dim stars in this image that you could not see when your screen was too dark.

I have laid out the pages to be viewed using a resolution of 800 X 600. A lower resolution will work but the images won't line up nicely. Most of the images use only 16 colors but a few go as high as 256 colors so be sure your monitor isn't set too low for colors or resolution otherwise you'll miss out.

You would be wise to close the Tool Bars, Location Box and Directory Buttons on your browser in order to present as much of the webpage on your screen as possible. That will save you scrolling back and forth. (Be sure to return the screen to its original state if you are using someone else's computer.)

You should understand that the sky rotates so images may appear at strange angles or even upside-down! Most of the time I show you the constellation in the orientation that you find it in that evening. (But, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere it might be very disoriented!)

It must be awfully hard to learn this stuff if it's constantly changing positions!

It adds some complexity but if you know what you are doing you'll get the hang of it. Indeed, your next lesson teaches you how to get oriented.

Principles of Astronomy is copyright protected, is the sole property of the author (Dr Jamie Love © 1997 - 2011) and is sold exclusively by Merlin Science. Any form of reproduction by any media is strictly forbidden.
In this sample, only the first quarter of the course is available. The remaining section are included in the complete hypertextbook, which does not have the advertisements displayed here in this sample. To learn more about the course and hypertextbook, visit the Principles of Astronomy website.