PHAS1513 & PHAS2513: Astronomy dissertations I & II


I no longer teach this course but I've left the pages up in case they might be useful.

PHAS1513 and PHAS2513 are courses run in the first and second year, respectively, of the certificate course. They provide an opportunity to acquire in-depth knowledge of a subject by indepent research on a topic and the production of a written report. This web page provides links to good starting points for finding information on the suggested topics. Each link here leads to a wealth of further information.

Essential information

The idea for these reports is that you will pick a broad area of current astronomical research, and write a scientific essay broadly summarising the current state of knowledge in the field. It should be written at a level such that your fellow students would find it accessible and interesting. Something like a New Scientist article would be ideal.

The reports should ideally be around 4,000 words long, which corresponds to about 10 sides of A4 text. The absolute limit is 6,000 words - anything longer than this will be marked down severely.

The deadline for the reports this year is Wednesday 4 May 2011, but probably the most convenient time to submit is at the revision lecture on Tuesday 3 May 2011. Submission via e-mail is fine, but PDF format is strongly preferred as other formats may not transfer well between systems. Hard copies may also be brought to the revision lecture.


A good scientific report will contain the following sections:


A very important aspect of report writing is citing your sources. A list of references must be given at the end of the report, and indications given in the text of what information is coming from which sources. Neglecting to give sources could, in the worst case, be taken to imply plagiarism.

Not everything needs to be referenced - general broad statements of common knowledge do not need to be referenced, but any specific claims that the interested reader may wish to find out more about should always have a source cited. For example, from an essay on dark matter, the following paragraph would not need to be referenced:

"For millennia astronomers have been focused on looking at light. Everything that we could see was either a source of light (stars) or objects which reflected light (planets, planetoids, comets)"

However, the following paragraph, which includes a reference to a specific piece of work, should include a reference:

"Later, in the 60's and 70's, Vera Rubin and Kent Ford, using very sensitive telescopes and a spectrometer, made similar observations for the Andromeda galaxy and confirmed Zwicky's results. They observed that the total luminous amount of matter in the galaxy is smaller than the one calculated using Newtonian laws."

Referencing style

Good ways to cite sources include either giving a numbered list of references, and giving a number in the text to indicate which reference is being used:

Or alternatively, giving an alphabetical list of references, and citing a source in the text by giving the names of the authors and the year of the publication:

In the list of references, whichever style you have adopted, you need to give enough information for the interested reader to easily locate the source. This generally means:

Reputable sources

The kinds of sources you might wish to look at include the following:


Marks are given for scientific content (75% of the total) and presentation (25% of the total). The essays are marked independently by a first and second marker, who then agree on the final mark to be awarded. Marks in previous years have been very good on average, ranging from around 55% at worst to 90-95% for the very best essays.

Example report

Two example reports, which both got high marks two years ago for PHAS1513, are provided here to show the kind of layout, content, referencing style and formatting that you might like to aim for. The reports are here:

  1. Dark matter
  2. Gravitational waves


At any time, please feel free to e-mail me a copy of your draft report for some feedback on style or content matters. This is not obligatory, of course, but you might find it useful. Remember that I'll need a day or two to have a look over the draft and reply, so don't send anything too close to the deadline! PDF format is strongly preferred.

Useful links for initial research

Here are a few links to websites which should give a helpful overview of the topic areas to be written about. Most of these websites will contain many links to further sites which cover aspects of the subject in greater detail.

  1. Dark Matter in the Universe
  2. Evidence for Dark Energy in the Universe
  3. Recent and future space mission to Mars
  4. The Formation of Stars
  5. The nature and origin of Gamma-Ray Bursters
  6. Extremely Large Optical telescopes: current status and future plans
  7. Gravitational Wave Astronomy
  8. The search for Extra-Terrestrial Life in the Universe
  9. The nature of Quasars
  10. The Herschel Mission
  11. Missions searching for extrasolar planets: an overview
  12. The atmospheres of extrasolar planets