Astronomy Reading List

So I stumbled upon this list of topics while I was killing some time yesterday. It’s a reading list that the astronomy department give their postgrads to work on. Being an astrochemist, I’m technically in the school of chemistry, not astronomy, regardless how closely we work together — so I was never given this list to begin with. I must say, however, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give this list a run through at some point. It has a combination of things I know very well (star formation, for instance) to things I hardly know at all (how do you measure the mass of a galaxy cluster?).

All of these topics are rather galaxy-oriented — mainly because that’s what they research most over in the astronomy department. While I still find stars more interesting, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to know these topics in more detail.

Actually, anything especially interesting, I’ll probably write about here. This blog is a useful way of learning stuff that could come in useful…

List of postgraduate reading topics


  1. Be able to discuss the evidence for the Big Bang cosmological model
    Key words: Hubble’s law, Microwave background, elemental abundances
  2. Be able to outline the evidence for the existence of dark matter
    Key words: rotation curves, velocity dispersion, galaxy clusters, Virial Theorem, large-scale structure, MOND
  3. Understand the meaning of the following cosmological parameters, and outline how they can be measured observationally.
    Key words: Omega, H_o, Lambda, sigma_8
  4. Have a basic understanding of the extragalactic distance scale, and how we use it to measure the distance to galaxies in the Universe
    Key words: Parallax, Cepheid variables, redshift
  5. Have a basic understanding of the process and consequences of cosmological inflation
    Key words: vacuum energy, phase transition, flatness, horizon
  6. Understand what is meant by a luminosity distance
  7. Understand what is meant by the CMB power spectrum
    Key words: WMAP, anisotropies

Stars and their endpoints

  1. Be able to outline how we think a star is formed
    Key words: gravitational collapse, cooling, angular momentum
  2. Be able to sketch a luminosity/temperature diagram for stars and use it to describe and briefly explain the main stages of stellar evolution
    Key words: Hertzsprung-Russell, main sequence, giant-branch, AGB stars, white dwarfs
  3. Be familiar with the OBAFGKM stellar classification system
  4. Be able to discuss the various endpoints of stellar evolution and the evolutionary paths taken
    Key words: planetary nebulae, white dwarfs, supernovae, neutron stars, black holes
  5. Without resorting to equations, be able to briefly explain the Chandrasekhar mass.
    Key words: Fermi energy, relativistic, degenerate
  6. Be able to discuss the key evidence for the existence of neutron stars and galactic black holes.

Galaxies and quasars

  1. Have an appreciation for the typical masses, sizes and separation of stars and galaxies in the Universe
  2. Be able to outline the key differences between spiral and elliptical galaxies.
  3. Be able to outline the key differences between the UV->IR spectrum of an old stellar population compared to a young star-forming galaxy.
    Key words: Balmer break, 4000 Angstrom break, emission lines, absorption lines, OB stars
  4. Understand the Lyman-break technique for finding distant galaxies
    Key words: Lyman-limit, drop-out
  5. Be familiar with the Tully-Fisher relation, the Faber-Jackson relation and the Fundamental Plane.
  6. Be able to outline what is meant by an AGN or quasar and briefly discuss the key properties of these objects
  7. Describe the observed differences between Type 1 and Type 2 AGN, and outline the current explanation for these differences.
  8. Be able to discuss the evidence for the existence of supermassive black holes.

Galaxy groups and clusters

  1. Have an appreciation for the size and mass of a typical galaxy cluster, and the types of galaxy most prevalent in these systems.
    Key words: morphology-density relation, Mpc
  2. Understand what is meant by a “gravitationally bound” system
  3. Be able to outline at least three independent methods for measuring the total mass of a galaxy cluster.
  4. Be able to describe the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect in general terms, and understand what this can be used for.

Structure formation

  1. Be able to outline the basic hierarchical scenario for the growth of structure in the Universe (in very simple terms; no equations)
  2. Have some familiarity with numerical and theoretical approaches to model galaxy and structure formation
    Key words: N-body simulations, semi-analytic models.
  3. Be able to briefly discuss current major problems in our understanding of the process of galaxy formation
    Keywords: cooling catastrophe, feedback, IMF
  4. Be able to describe and understand the Lyman-alpha forest
  5. Understand what is meant by the epoch of reionisation
    Key words: dark ages, Gunn-Petersen trough

Emission/scattering processes

  1. Be able to briefly outline the physics behind the following radiation mechanisms (in very general terms, without resort to equations). In each case you should be able to describe an astrophysical phenomenon that produces such radiation:
    (a) Blackbody radiation
    (b) Synchrotron
    (c) Bremsstrahlung
    (d) Line emission
    (e) Compton scattering
  2. What are forbidden/permitted line transitions?
  3. What causes hydrogen 21cm emission?
  4. Be able to explain why the sky is blue
    Key words: Rayleigh scattering


  1. Be able to explain why the sky is dark at night
    Key words: Olber’s paradox
  2. Be able to briefly outline the historical mystery behind gamma-ray bursts and the latest paradigm for their origin
  3. Understand how extra-solar planets are currently detected, and discuss prospects for finding earth-like planets.
  4. Understand what is meant by a luminosity function

Current and future telescopes and observatories

A bewildering array of astronomical observatories now exist, both on the ground and in space. You should be familiar with the acronyms below and be able to briefly describe the facility, the relevant wavelength range and give examples of how these might be used:

VLT, Gemini, WHT, UKIRT, JCMT, CFHT, GAIA, Chandra, XMM-Newton, Herschel, Planck, Akari, ALMA, JWST, ELT, SKA, WMAP

Basic astronomical observing

  1. Be able to explain the Vega and AB magnitude systems
  2. Understand the difference between apparent and absolute magnitudes
  3. Understand what is meant by a U-band magnitude (or B,V,R,I,Z,J,H,K…)
  4. Be able to explain the celestial coordinate system (RA, Dec) and estimate the RA/Dec of the Sun at any time of year.

Jargon and acronyms

Astronomy is riddled with jargon and acronyms. You should be familiar with the following commonly-used terms (a deliberately confusing mixture of telescopes, instrumentation, projects, computer code, paradigms and astrophysical objects). Some are repeated from above:


About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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