8.286 | Fall 2013 | Undergraduate

The Early Universe


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


18.03 Differential Equations, 8.02 Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism

Required Textbooks

Ryden, Barbara. Introduction to Cosmology. Addison-Wesley, 2002. ISBN: 9780805389128.

Weinberg, Steven. The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. 2nd updated ed. Basic Books, 1993. ISBN: 9780465024377. 

Liddle, Andrew. An Introduction to Modern Cosmology. 2nd ed. Wiley, 2003. ISBN: 9780470848357. [Preview with Google Books]

Guth, Alan H. The Inflationary Universe. Basic Books, 1998. ISBN: 9780201328400.

Other Readings

There is no textbook that I know of that is really appropriate for the intended content of this course, although Barbara Ryden’s book, Introduction to Cosmology, comes much closer than any book I have seen previously. Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes is a superbly written book which gives an excellent description of cosmology in general, and the synthesis of the light chemical elements in particular. But it does not describe the mathematical details. It has a mathematical appendix, but the description there is very sketchy.

Weinberg’s book has been required reading for this course since the first time it was taught, in 1986. Before 2000 I used Joseph Silk’s The Big Bang as a second required book in this course, and in 2000 and 2002 we used Rowan-Robinson’s Cosmology instead. We used Barbara Ryden’s book for the first time in 2004, and I have been using it since.

For the first part of the course (classical cosmology), the lectures and the associated lecture notes* will describe the subject at a level of detail that is much more mathematical than Weinberg’s book, and a little beyond the level of Ryden’s book. For the second part of the course (modern particle physics and its recent impact on cosmology), we will rely mostly on the lecture notes, although Ryden does have a good chapter on inflation. You will also be asked to read several articles from Scientific American or similar publications.

(* Prof. Guth’s lecture notes are not available to OCW users, but his lecture slides are. Please see extensive review notes in the exams section.)


75% of the course grade will be based on quizzes, which will be given in class during the normal lecture period. There will be three of these quizzes, and there will be no final exam. The remaining 25% of the grade will be based on problem sets. Problem sets will normally be assigned every week, but there will be some breaks due to holidays and in-class quizzes. There will be 10 problem sets altogether.

Three Quizzes 75
Problem Sets 25

Special Relativity

In the “old” days I began this course with a unit on special relativity, which consisted of two sets of lecture notes and about four lectures. However, with the advent of Relativity (8.033) this seemed a bit redundant, so in 1996 I dropped relativity from the syllabus. Special relativity is not, however, a prerequisite for this course. There will be a few more results from special relativity that will be needed as the course progresses (E = mc2, for example), and I will try to point them out and summarize them carefully as we go along.

Course Outline

  1. Doppler Effect (and a little Special Relativity)
  2. Kinematics of Newtonian Cosmology
  3. Dynamics of Newtonian Cosmology
  4. Introduction to Non-Euclidean Spaces
  5. Black-Body Radiation and the Early History of the Universe
  6. The Accelerating Universe and the Cosmological Constant
  7. Big-Bang Nucleosynthesis
  8. Problems of the Conventional (Non-Inflationary) Hot Big Bang Model
  9. Grand Unified Theories and the Magnetic Monopole Problem
  10. The Inflationary Universe Model
  11. Primordial Density Fluctuations and the Cosmic Microwave Background
  12. Eternal Inflation and the Multiverse

Homework Policy

In this course I regard the problem sets primarily as an educational experience, rather than a mechanism of evaluation. I have allocated 25% of the grade to problem sets in order to encourage you to do them, and to make life easier for students who find it difficult to do well on quizzes. You should feel free to work on these problems in groups, and I would strongly encourage you to do so. With the right mix of students, the homework can be more fun and more illuminating. I will in fact soon be setting up a Class Contact webpage to help you make contact with each other.

However, it is important pedagogically that each student write up the solution independently. The simple copying of a friend’s paper is not the kind of effort that the grading is intended to encourage. Using 8.286 solutions that have been circulated in previous years is strictly off limits. Using other sources, such as other textbooks or web documents, is considered perfectly okay, as long as you write up the solution in your own words.

A homework problem which appears to be copied from another student, from a solution circulated in a previous term, or copied more or less verbatim from some other source (without rewriting in your own words) will be given a reduced grade, possibly a zero. Except in blatant cases, however, students will be given a warning the first time this happens, and will be given an opportunity to redo the relevant solutions. Since the homework is intended primarily for learning, and not evaluation, there is nothing that you can do on the homework—in this course—that will lead to an interview with the Committee on Discipline. I say this because I want to strongly encourage you to work in groups on the homework, and I don’t want you to feel that there are any hidden dangers. (Remember, however, that you should not assume that this policy holds in other classes; different professors have different points of view on these issues.)

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2013
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Problem Sets
Exams with Solutions