First-year PhD Astrophysics Reading Group

Astrophysics is a huge and diverse discipline. Nevertheless, there is a body of knowledge, ideas and jargon that should really be familiar to everyone, whatever their detailed field of research. In the space of a 3 to 4 year PhD, getting to grips with this material is not easy, but it is important to get at least some feel for the basics early on.

Therefore, we will be having a crash course that attempts to get through the most important topics in a concentrated burst at the start of the PhD. The idea is that the first-year students plus moderators will meet regularly to discuss the material on the reading list below. This is like the fabled Kamikaze system, in that the sessions will be interactive discussions - no sitting back and passively absorbing (or not) lectures. In order to stimulate this attitude of engagement, there will be a weekly problem for which everyone should hand in a written answer.

However, the difference is that complete mastery of all the details is not expected. This is the real world: the material is out there, and professional astrophysicists have to develop a working familiarity with it - often in far less time than would be ideal. At the most basic level, this means being able to decode the jargon. With luck, the ideas will be sufficiently exciting that readers will be motivated to dig into the details of some derivations. In coming together and talking over the material, it should be possible to share these insights. The main thing is to cover the territory as thoroughly as possible given the limited time (as a guide, it is envisaged that all preparation for the groups should not take a majority of your time - say up to 1 working day total per tutorial). This will at least provide an introduction to some of the more useful textbooks, and lay the foundation for more detailed specialized study.


The reading groups sessions will typically be on Tuesdays from 3pm-4pm and will be held in the Lecture Theatre, but the Stobie room is the backup location in case there are any clashes.


Available in reference section of ROE library. Please photocopy the relevant bit and leave the book for others to use. There are plenty of alternatives; reading these as well is not forbidden.....

Binney & Merrifield, Galactic astronomy
Dyson & Williams, The physics of the interstellar medium
Jackson, Classical electrodynamics (3rd [SI] edition)
Lena, Observational astrophysics
Lawrence, Astronomical measurement, a concise guide
Longair, High-energy astrophysics (2nd edition: 2 vols)
Peacock, Cosmological physics (apologies...)
Phillipps, The physics of stars
Press et al., Numerical recipes (2nd edition)
Rybicki & Lightman, Radiative processes in astrophysics

Hand-in questions

This course is formally assessed, and counts 20 hours towards your SUPA requirement for 40 hours of taught material. The formal requirement is that you pass 9 of the hand-in problem sets. It is compulsory for all astrophysics PhD students.

It is easy enough to convince yourself that you understand a piece of reading, but the acid test is to use the material. Therefore, so that everyone can gauge for themselves whether the reading is sinking in, there will be a series of questions associated with the group, at a frequency of roughly one per week. Students are expected to make an independent effort to produce a full written solution to the problem that goes with a given piece of reading. Possibly you will fail - in which case come to the tutorial with some relevant points in mind that you want to see clarified. If you still can't do the problem afterwards, even after some discussion with other students, you should bring your partial solution to the relevant tutor and ask for advice.

The schedule gives the tutor names and references.

The list of questions may be subject to change as the sessions progress.

Ken Rice,
October 2016