Where can I study Astronomy?

Astronomy / July 10, 2020

Students usually enter Part II Astrophysics on completion of Part IB in either Mathematics or Physics. Those going on to Part III Astrophysics have normally taken Part II Astrophysics. There is a possibility of changing to Part III Astrophysics from Part II Mathematics or Part II Physics. There is no restriction on entry for Part II Astrophysics, but the number of Part III places is limited to about 20 by the number of potential projects (and project supervisors) available. Preference is given to students who have taken Part II Astrophysics.

It is not necessary for students to decide on whether to apply to go on to take Part III Astrophysics at the time they begin the Part II course. In order to be a candidate for honours in Astrophysics in Part III of the Natural Sciences Tripos, a student should have obtained at least a II.1 in Astrophysics or Physics in Part II of the Natural Sciences Tripos. Part II Mathematics Tripos students should have obtained at least a II.1 and will be considered on a case-by-case basis because it is required that they should have demonstrated a good grasp of at least three appropriate applied mathematics courses in the examination.

All students who proceed to Part III Astrophysics are generally required to complete at least one of the CATAM computer projects organized by the Mathematics Faculty. The computer project work may either be taken for examination credit during the year (in lieu of the extended essay) or, alternatively, completed during the long vacation following completion of Part II. A grade of at least a Beta for the project is required for admission to the Part III course.

Part II Astrophysics: Course Content

The syllabus includes eight lecture courses split between the Michaelmas and Lent terms. These lecture courses come in two flavours: those which teach the fundamental physics underlying the rest of the course and those which apply these concepts to particular astronomical subject areas.

This year there were four courses in the Michaelmas Term, two on essential physics, Principles of Quantum Mechanics (taught in the Mathematics Department) and Relativity (in the Physics department) plus two courses in astrophysics, Structure and Evolution of Stars and Physical Cosmology (both at the IoA). There are four further courses in the Lent term. The Physics of Astrophysics plays the dual role of introducing students to a range of exciting topics in contemporary astrophysics, while developing abilities in physical reasoning and order of magnitude estimates in an astronomical context. Statistical Physics (in Mathematics) and Astrophysical Fluids (at the IoA) continue the essential physics education and Stellar Dynamics and Astrophysics (at the IoA) adds a further course in applied astrophysics.

The style throughout requires minimal memorizing of descriptive terminology, and avoids the simple quoting and application of complicated formulae. Rather, lecturers will concentrate on the derivations of fundamentals from first principles, and the teaching of basic understanding.

There is also an examinable coursework component (comprising about 1/8 of the marks) for which students have two options: an extended essay (selected from a list of titles on contemporary research issues, announced in the Michaelmas term) or else the completion of typically two of the CATAM computer projects organized by the Mathematics Faculty, and which include astrophysical options. The projects are aimed at enabling students with a research career in mind to develop the necessary ability to solve various problems by numerical means. Note that although students may freely choose which option to take, any students proceeding to Part III Astrophysics will be required to demonstrate the necessary computing skills, normally by completing at least one CATAM computing project, before commencing Part III; thus any such students who chose the essay as examinable work will need to complete a CATAM project over the summer.

This course leads to a MSci. degree and is mainly intended as preparation for graduate studies in astrophysics, although the high level of mathematical rigour means that graduates are also highly attractive to employers in other sectors. Lecture courses are taken mainly from the wide selection of astrophysics courses taught, often by Institute of Astronomy staff, as part of the Part III Mathematics and from two courses offered in Part III Physics. Students normally take four lecture courses for examination although they often attend a wider range of lectures for interest.