Institute of Astronomy

Topics in Astrophysics

Lent Term, 24 Lectures – Prof. C J Clarke, Dr O. Shorttle and IoA/Physics staff

How do astronomers make deductions about the important physical processes operating in the Universe when they are forced to play the role of passive observer rather than active experimentalist? Despite all the complicated analytical machinery that has been developed to process astronomical data and to perform complex theoretical simulations, there is still a vital role in astrophysics for the order of magnitude estimate in order to sort out the relative importance of different physical effects.  This is a skill that is rarely taught and one that is not always easily acquired, even though its mastery generally involves little more than the physics that is taught in the first two years of an undergraduate education.

This course aims to teach a set of skills by looking at a large range of astrophysical phenomena on scales from exoplanets to quasars. The issues to be discussed span well established astronomical truths (and how we know them) as well as a range of topics that are still at the forefront of debate.  The lectures will provide an immersion in topics in contemporary astrophysics but the examinable content of the course - and the supervision problem sets - do not involve significant factual recall of the lecture content; instead these exercises are designed to develop clear thinking and the ability to make intelligent deductions from information presented.

To provide a vehicle for teaching these skills, the course is divided into two broad themes. The first half of the course considers the multi-faceted applications of Newtonian dynamics and tidal theory to a wide variety of astronomical objects, emphasising the wealth of phenomena that can be understood in terms of a small number of key dynamical concepts. In the second half of the course we consider the basic physics of planet formation and evolution. These core lectures are interspersed with `Guest Lectures’ where a number of staff in astronomy departments across Cambridge relate these lectures to cutting edge research.

The scheduling of lecture topics may occasionally deviate slightly from what is set out below except in the case of the Guest Lectures TBC for 2020/21

Lecture 1-3:        Timescales and Distributions

Lecture 4:           Guest Lecture: C. Tout, Type IA Supernovae

Lectures 5-10      Tides and Dynamics

Lecture: 11         Guest Lecture: M. Wyatt, The Formation of the Moon

Lecture 12:         Guest Lecture: V. Belokurov, Tidal stripping in action: the field of streams

Lecture 13-15:    The assembly of planets

Lecture 16-17:    Where do atmospheres come from and where do they go?

Lecture 18:         Guest Lecture:  N. Madhusudhan, Exoplanet atmospheres

Lectures 19:       Planetary interiors

Lectures 20:       Solar system small bodies

Lecture 21:         Guest Lecture:  A. Bonsor, White dwarf insights into exoplanetary composition

Lecture 22:         The formation of moons

Lecture 23:         Guest Lecture:  D. Queloz, The discovery of extrasolar planets

Lectures 24:       Unsolved problems in planet formation and evolution


Recommended books:

There are no textbooks to support the course.  However for students who are interested in learning more about some of the topics covered, the following books (in addition to those supporting other Part II Astro. courses) are recommended:

P. Armitage, The Astrophysics of Planet Formation, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

D Catling & J Kasting, Atmospheric evolution on inhabited and lifeless worlds, CUP, 2017

Frank, J., King, A., Raine, D., Accretion Power in Astrophysics, Cambridge   University Press, 2002.

F. Mellia High Energy Astrophysics, Princeton University Press, 2009.

D Turcotte, Geodynamics, CUP, 2018

D. Ward-Thompson & A. Whitworth, An Introduction to Star Formation, Cambridge   University Press, 2011.


Page last updated: 23 September 2020 at 13:07