Astronomy 500: The Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Journal Paper Weeks
Eight of our twelve student presentations will focus on individual journal papers. Before each of these presentations, each non-presenter will read the journal paper ahead of time and then create a cumulative exam problem appropriate to the material within the paper.

Sample cumulative exam problems, complete with clear solutions, should be submitted via e-mail, by 9:00am on Tuesday, the day before the seminar presentation. If your problem or solution requires figures that you are not comfortable creating and integrating into an ascii (or LaTeX) document, send the text via e-mail and leave a printed copy of the text and your hand-drawn figures in my pigeon box. File names should begin with your last name.

Problems should be at level of those that you encounter on departmental cumulative (qualifying) exams. They should fall into two rough groups: (a) introductory, or general, problems, which are often found at the top of a cumulative exam, and (b) more advanced, or topic specific, problems, which tend to cluster at the end of exams. For example, calculating the diffraction limit of an optical or radio telescope would be a general problem, while applying your knowledge of the shape of the spectral energy distribution of a particular galaxy type, and its shift with redshift for a given model of galaxy evolution, would be a more specific problem. I may request that you write either general, or topic specific, questions for certain papers.

As you read the paper, try to think about how your knowledge of physics and astronomy might really be tested on a formal cumulative exam on this particular paper. Play fair with your peers, and remember that as you ask, so shall ye answer. Your question should be solvable in under half an hour. If an obscure constant is needed to solve your problem, you might want to provide it.

If questions appear derived from a cursory reading of the first two pages, or Abstract, of papers, Steps Will Be Taken.

At noon the day before the seminar presentation, one question will be selected for public consumption. It will appear on the class practice question web page. Each non-presenter must complete the question alone before seminar, and bring their solution to class the next day. The writer of the selected question does not need to re-answer their own problem. He or she may eat chocolate, and has permission to look gleeful for twenty-four hours.

When you are solving the mock cumulative exam question, try to work without texts or references (other than the parent journal paper), and set yourself a time limit of roughly twenty minutes. If you can't proceed without looking up a formula, etc., then make a note of doing so on your paper and move on. Our goal is simply to provide you with some low-stress cumulative exam practice each week, so don't spend a lot of time on this and don't feel that you have to succeed on every question.

SDSS-III Project Weeks
Four of our twelve student presentations will focus on one of the key projects of the SDSS-III scientific program. For each of these presentations, each non-presenter will read through either paper or online references on the project, attend the seminar presentation, and then sketch a PhD Thesis abstract or proposal outline appropriate to the project. Part of the presentation time can be used for the entire group to brainstorm on potential ideas for thesis topics.

Thesis project ideas should be submitted via e-mail, by 9:00am the Friday after the seminar presentation.

Our goal is to get you thinking about the roles available to graduate students on each project. You clearly do not need to develop your ideas as deeply as you would for an actual thesis project presentation. Instead, focus on the key facet of your idea (the unique science that will distinguish it from other work on the main project). Check that your goals are achievable with the quality of the imaging and spectroscopic data that you propose to use. These could be SDSS data products, or they could be formed primarily from observations taken with another telescope, in another wavelength regime or multi-wavelength regime, or via the output of a theoretical simulation program. Check that your required sensitivity, resolution, and bandwidth, for example, are realistic.

Your project sketch should be under a page in length.

You may work in groups of two on project ideas, if you wish. I suggest that each group has a first-year student member and a second-year student member. If you all prefer, I can define the group memberships, or you may choose your own groups.

Work Load
Remember that ASTR500 is a 1-credit course, which translates to three to four hours of time per week for non-presenters. You will not succeed by simply showing up to the weekly presentations without preparation. However, we do want to keep the amount of time spent on assignments to a reasonable, finite, level.

Many 3-credit astronomy courses have large projects which are due toward the end of the semester. We will thus begin the seminar series early, so that no student will need to prepare a presentation during the last week of classes.

I expect that the PhD Thesis sketches will be challenging exercises. These embody the type of thinking that you should be moving toward, as your graduate careers progress. Do not be disappointed if they seem very difficult at first, and do not spent wildly disproportionate amounts of time on them because they seem harder to define than the mock cumulative exam problems. My expectation is not that you will each create four brilliant stand-alone PhD thesis projects, but that through these exercises you will steadily improve your perspective on what science can, and should, be done through the SDSS-III program.