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Astronomy teaching at Sussex

MSc courses

The beginning

The Astronomy MSc degree started in October 1965, some three months before the first member of astronomy faculty (Bill McCrea) arrived. It was a joint programme with the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) at Herstmonceux, up to and including the academic year 1988-89. As recorded in Roger Tayler's article about the first thirty years of astronomy at Sussex, the first teaching was done by visiting faculty from RGO, supplemented by courses by physics and mathematics faculty. The complete list of courses available to the first cohort of students is:

1965-66 (1st year part-time students only; all RGO staff):

  • Descriptive Astronomy
  • Stellar and Galactic Dynamics
  • Stellar Interiors

1966-67 (2nd year part-time students, plus 7 full-time students)

The three courses above, plus 4 additional astronomy courses:

  • Celestial Mechanics
  • Elementary Cosmology
  • Radio Astronomy
  • Stellar Atmospheres

and 6 courses in mathematics and physics, of which the first two were given specially for the MSc and the other four were available to other students:

  • Atomic Physics
  • Plasma Physics
  • Advanced Quantum Mechanics
  • Approximation Theory
  • Numerical Solution of Differential Equations
  • Weak Interactions

The full programme

The programme was reorganised for students starting in October 1967, by which time several other astronomy teaching and research faculty were in place. The basic structure was of three 24-lecture compulsory courses plus a number of optional 16-lecture courses (normally 6 available each year; 7 in the first year), of which students were expected to study four for examination (however, initially the structure of the examination papers allowed students in practice to answer questions on no more than one optional course; thus was changed for 1974-75 so that they had to answer questions on at least two optional courses). There was also a project, which counted for one-third of the weight.

From 1970 to 1996, there was also a two-week crash course, comprising an 8-lecture revision course in relevant physics and a 9-lecture qualitative and descriptive introduction to astronomy (including its history). The physics lectures were given by Roger Tayler (except in 1989 and 1996, when he was unwell and the lectures were given by Leon Mestel (1989) and Robert Smith & Carole Haswell (1996)), under the title Remedial Physics (changed in 1992 to Physics for Astronomy); they seem also to have been given in 1967. They covered thermodynamics, statistical physics, atomic physics and the formation of spectral lines, and plasma physics.  The descriptive lectures (2 on history, 1 on the astronomical literature, and 6 slide shows on the solar system, stars, gas & dust and galaxies & the universe) were largely given by Robert Smith until 1994; Nigel Holloway replaced the galaxies lectures by 2 lectures on radio astronomy while he was in post; in 1995 and 1996, the lectures were shared amongst various faculty.

From 1967-8 to 1974-5, there were three three-hour examination papers; each paper had 4 questions in Section A (on one of the compulsory courses), plus a Section B containing one question on each of the compulsory courses. Initially the rubric was to answer 3 questions, not more than 2 from each section; in 1974-5 this was changed to 4 questions, with 2 questions from each section; the question lengths were adjusted from 60 to 45 minutes.

From 1975-6 to 1996-7, after the addition of the fourth compulsory course, the structure of the three papers was altered. Each of Papers I and II consisted of two sections, each containing 4 questions on one of the compulsory courses. Paper III contained 3 questions on each of the theoretical options, plus two questions on the Instrumental Astronomy course in the years when it ran (there was also a piece of assessed practical work during the course).From 1975-6, the number of options was reduced to 5 each year (4 from 1988-90, because of the loss of Instrumental Astronomy as a result of the imminent move of RGO to Cambridge).

From 1997-8 to 2001-2, because of the national withdrawal of funding for Advanced Course Studentships, the programme was further re-organised, to allow the sharing of teaching with undergraduate students. The four compulsory courses were changed, and each was examined separately (Fundamentals of Astronomy by coursework only). The two-week crash course was stopped.

In 2002-3 a new programme in Cosmology was added, with a structure that involved theoretical physics courses. Many options became available, and the structure became more complicated and will not be described here. The current programme structures can be found on the department website.

The compulsory courses were as follows.

From 1967-8 to 1996-7:

  • Introduction to Astronomy (a general overview of observational material, originally given by Bernard Pagel and subsequently by Robert Smith, Nigel Holloway and others)
  • Structure of Galaxies (which included Stellar Dynamics) (initially given by Donald Lynden-Bell; later by Robert Smith, John Barrow and others)
  • Structure of Stars (which included Stellar Atmospheres) (given for a long time by Roger Tayler, from 1967-8, probably almost until the major revision of the degree in 1997)
  • High Energy Astrophysics & Cosmology - added in 1975-76: see above (given initially by and at the instigation of Nigel Holloway; later by Roger Tayler, then Peter Thomas)

From 1997-8 to 2001-2

  • Fundamentals of Astronomy (a replacement for Introduction to Astronomy, run as a guided reading course; the only course now for MSc students only; given by Robert Smith)
  • Galactic Structure (same lecture course as for undergraduates, but with different assessment)
  • Cosmology (same lecture course as for undergraduates, but with different assessment)
  • Stellar Structure (same lecture course as for undergraduates, but with different assessment)

A complete list of optional courses given between the years 1967-8 and 2001-2, with the lecturers where known (names with ? are those listed on the board of examiners in the relevant year who are known to have the appropriate expertise; * denotes research fellow), is:

  • Abundance[s] of the Elements (Bernard Pagel 1967-8, 1971-2, 1977-8, 1980-1)
  • Accretion Discs (Robert Smith 1985-6, 1992-4, Carole Haswell 1995-7)
  • Active Galaxies and Quasars (Michael Penston 1984-5)
  • Astrometry and Galactic Astronomy (Andrew Murray and Derek Jones 1981-2)
  • Astrophysical Plasmas (Roger Tayler 1970-1, 1973-4, 1975-6, Richard Rijnbeek 1996-7)
  • Cataclysmic Binaries (Robert Smith 1989-90)
  • Cataclysmic Variables (Robert Smith 1984-5)
  • Celestial Mechanics (Michael Cummings? 1967-8)
  • Close Binaries (Alistair Robertson 1980-1)
  • Close Binary Stars (Robert Smith 1982-4, 1988-9)
  • Clusters of Galaxies (Peter Thomas 1991-3)
  • Cosmic Electrodynamics (Leon Mestel 1987-8)
  • Cosmic Microwave Background (Bernard Jones, visitor, 1990-1)
  • Cosmology (Bill McCrea 1967-71, 1972-3, 1974-5)
  • Cosmology and [Elementary] Particles (John Barrow 1983-4, 1988-9, 1990-1)
  • Distant Universe (Jon Loveday or Kathy Romer? 2000-2)
  • Elementary Particle Physics, Astrophysics and Cosmology (Roger Tayler 1977-8)
  • Elementary Particles and Cosmology (John Barrow 1981-2)
  • Emission-line Objects (Michael Penston? or Keith Taylor? 1974-5)
  • Emission-line Objects in Astrophysics (Michael Penston 1986-7)
  • Evolution of the Solar System (Bill McCrea 1971-2)
  • Experimental Tests of General Relativity (John Barrow 1984-5)
  • Extragalactic Astronomy (Elena and Roberto Terlevich 1988-89)
  • Formation of Stars and Galaxies (Leon Mestel 1978-9)
  • Galactic Kinematics and Structure (Derek Jones and Andrew Murray, 1975-7 1978-9, 1987-8)
  • Galactic Nuclei (Mark Bailey* 1981-2)
  • Galaxy Formation (Peter Thomas 1993-5)
  • Gaseous Nebulae (Bernard Pagel 1982-3) (course not given in full, nor examined, because of lack of audience)
  • General Relativity (Jim Byrne 1997-8, ? 1998-2002)
  • Gravitational Astrophysics (Nigel Holloway 1976-7, 1979-80)
  • Gravitational Waves (John Barrow 1985-6)
  • High Energy Astrophysics (Nigel Holloway) (1974-75 - then became a compulsory course: see above)
  • Inflationary Cosmology (John Barrow 1987-88, 1989-90)
  • Instrumental Astronomy (a 2-week residential course at RGO, taught by a variety of RGO staff 1967-88)
  • Interacting Binary Stars (Chris Campbell* 1986-7)
  • Interstellar Medium (Roger Tayler? 1968-70, 1971-2, Max Pettini 1983-4, Peter Thomas 1997-8)
  • Large-scale Structure and Galaxy Formation (Kandu Subramanian* 1996-7)
  • Mass Loss and Stellar Winds (Robert Smith 1980-1)
  • Model Testing in Astronomy (Martin Hendry* 1994-6)
  • Neutrinos in Cosmology (John Barrow 1991-2)
  • Non-spherical Stars (Robert Smith 1970-1, 1972-3, 1978-9)
  • Nucleogenesis (Frank Clifford? 1967-9, 1970-1, 1974-5)
  • Observational Cosmology (Rodney Smith* 1986-7)
  • Optical Instrumentation and Data Analysis (Andrew Cameron* 1992-4)
  • Origin of the [Chemical] Elements (Frank Clifford 1972-3, 1976-7, 1979-80)
  • Peculiar Galaxies and Quasars (Michael Penston? Martin Rees? 1972-3)
  • Physics of Emission-Line Sources (Keith Taylor 1979-80, 1985-6)
  • Physics of Pulsars (Leon Mestel 1980-1, 1982-3, 1984-5, 1988-9)
  • Primordial Nucleosynthesis (John Barrow 1993-4)
  • Radio and Infrared Astronomy (Rob Fender* 1996-7)
  • Radio Astronomy (Richard Bingham? 1967-70)
  • Radio Astronomy and Radio Sources (Nigel Holloway? 1975-6, 1977-8)
  • Relativistic Astrophysics (Leon Mestel or Paul Murdin? 1973-4)
  • Relativity and Astrophysics (John Jackson* 1969-70, 1971-2)
  • Solar and Stellar Magnetic Fields (Moira Jardine* 1992-3)
  • Solar System Astronomy (Paul Roche 1995-6)
  • Solar-Stellar Connection (Andrew Cameron* 1989-92)
  • Space Plasma Physics (Sandra Chapman 1990-1, Richard Rijnbeek 1997-9)
  • Spectroscopic Astrophysics (Peter Schroeder 2000-1)
  • Spiral Structure and Galactic Nuclei (Donald Lynden-Bell? 1970-1)
  • Star Clusters (Bob Dickens 1973-4, Simon Clarke 1998-9)
  • Star Formation (Paul Murdin or Michael Penston or Alan Wright*? 1973-4, Robert Smith 1975-6, Leon Mestel 1981-2, 1983-4, 1985-6, 1991-2)
  • Stellar Evolution (John Hazlehurst 1967-8, 1969-70, 1971-2, Robert Smith 1973-75, 1986-88, 1994-95, Leon Mestel 1989-91)
  • Stellar Hydrodynamics (Robert Smith 1976-7)
  • Stellar Stability (John Hazlehurst 1972-3, Robert Smith 1977-78, 1979-80, 1991-92, 1995-96)
  • Stellar Stability and Variable Stars (John Hazlehurst 1968-9)
  • Stellar Winds and Mass Loss (Robert Smith 1980-1)
  • The Early Universe (Andrew Liddle* 1992-5, David Wands* 1995-6, John Barrow 1996-9, Andrew Liddle? 1999-2000)
  • The Regularity of the Universe (John Barrow 1982-3)
  • X-Ray Astronomy (Nigel Holloway 1978-9)
  • X-ray and Gamma-ray Astronomy (Paul Roche 1994-5)

Graduates from the MSc programme

By the end of academic year 2009-10, there had been 315 MSc graduates, of which 300 were in Astronomy and 15 were in Cosmology. An additional 20 students attended all or part of the MSc programme, but either withdrew (7, one on ill-health grounds after an accident; two were RGO staff members, one of whom left RGO half-way through his part-time course), were deemed to have withdrawn (2), or failed (11); one of the latter nonetheless went on to complete a PhD elsewhere!  Omitting the RGO staff, who all already had permanent posts in astronomy, more than 50 (including one of those who failed!) are known to hold (or to have held) academic or other professional positions in astronomy or related areas (from science journalism to museums).

The accompanying graph shows how the numbers graduating varied from year to year. The initial spike was a result of many RGO staff jumping at the opportunity of obtaining a postgraduate qualification in astronomy; others followed at a  more leisurely rate later. Other spikes were largely caused by particularly large numbers of overseas students. There is a clear drop after research council funding for the programme was withdrawn, but then a recovery, aided by the introduction of the Cosmology programme.

Astronomy MSc graduates by year 1967-2010.jpg

Reminiscences by Robert Smith (involved from 1968 onwards)

In the early days, many of the part-time students were RGO staff members, and this continued until virtually all the staff members who qualified to do an MSc had obtained one. We also used the MSc courses as training for DPhil students, who were expected to pass oral examinations on the four compulsory courses. This examining (with two examiners per student per course) took up quite a time, and was not always systematically pursued - some DPhil students escaped without passing (or even sitting) all the orals.  Fortunately, it was not a formal university requirement. By the 1990s, we had gone over to asking the DPhil students to sit the MSc written examinations - much less effort.

The DSIR, SRC and SERC all proved surprisingly generous in providing funding for Advanced Course studentships for the MSc, despite the head of SRC, Sam Edwards (who had actually been our first external examiner for the MSc), saying to Roger Tayler on one occasion in the 1970s that he didn't know why the Council supported our programme. Eventually, the Education and Training Committee of PPARC decided to stop funding any MSc programmes in Astronomy (there were by then four in the UK), with effect from 1 October 1997. Although John Barrow and I protested, and indeed organised a write-in by many MSc graduates, there was no relenting. This led directly to the 1997 revision of the MSc structure noted above.

In these days of careful scrutiny by curriculum committees of any new course, it is interesting to note how we decided in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (possibly even later) which options would be offered in any particular year. In the earliest days, the three or four faculty members regularly met for lunch in the Senior Common Room, and often discussed Astronomy Centre business (we rarely held formal subject group meetings). Early in the summer term someone would ask what options we should offer from the coming October, and a draft would be roughed out, on the basis of changing one or two options each year (for the benefit of the part-time students). Once we had agreement from the relevant lecturers, a document would be circulated with the new programme - no form-filling, no formal curriculum committee, no approval by a higher university committee. We were just trusted to get on with it - and we did.

Early on, Roger Tayler introduced some introductory lectures to try to bring all students up to some common level of knowledge. Initially this was just a crash course of 8 lectures by him on physics relevant to astrophysics, but later I added six lectures on descriptive astronomy, which were mainly slide shows, and two on the history of astronomy. These all formed a non-examinable introduction to the programme, given in the first two weeks of the autumn term.

At some point, we started to be concerned about some students doing poorly in the written examination, and introduced a progress examination in January (starting in 1982). The results didn't count towards the degree - but it enabled us to pick up the weak students and keep an eye on them, as well as pointing out to them the need to work harder.... The requirement disappeared again after the reorganisation of the MSc in 1997.

Undergraduate courses

Undergraduate teaching began in a small way, with one third-year option (Stellar Structure) taught by Roger Tayler, starting in 1967 or 1968. This was available to all students in the school (then MAPS) and proved very popular. Roger, until 1970 the only teaching member of faculty, also supervised third year projects in astronomy for physicists. He believed at that stage that it was not possible to study serious astronomy until the third year, after a good grounding in physics and mathematics. This view coloured the structure of the first undergraduate degree programme involving astronomy: a degree called Physics with Mathematics and Astronomy (PMAst), where the astronomy content consisted of three third year courses in astronomy plus a third year astronomy project. The initial three courses were:

  • Galactic Structure
  • Interstellar Medium (this was only available to PMAst students; it was subsequently shortened and became a second-year summer-term course)
  • Stellar Structure

Later options included Relativity and Cosmology, and teaching developed to include second-year courses, such as Observational Astrophysics (which became the basis for the 1995 book of the same title by Robert Smith).

In 1990, a new Physics with Astrophysics degree programme was introduced, which introduced first-year courses, including practical work. Since that time, there has always been teaching in astronomy in all years, including year 4 when the MPhys programme was introduced in 1993. This programme was renamed Astrophysics in 1999, as part of a move to try to boost applications - but applications fell! The Physics with Astrophysics course was re-introduced the following year, but the Astrophysics programme has stayed as well - essentially, some of the courses that are compulsory for Astrophysics students are optional for the Physics with Astrophysics students. When the overall science curriculum was reviewed, new programmes, for MPhys students only, were introduced (from 2006), involving a summer research placement for ~8 weeks as an assessed part of the degree. These programmes have attracted some excellent students, and have had the effect of raising the general level of our applicants. They have been particularly popular with students wishing to study astronomy.