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Astrophysics through Computation

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When Brian Koberlein couldn’t find an astrophysics textbook for undergraduates, he decided to write his own. 

Koberlein, senior lecturer in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy, and David Meisel, distinguished professor at State University of New York at Geneseo, take a “back-of-the-envelope” approach in Astrophysics through Computation to make the science manageable for students still building high-level math skills.

The collaboration with Meisel began years ago when the professors struggled to find an undergraduate astrophysics textbook for a class they co-taught at Geneseo.

“The approach we took with our textbook was to carry the astrophysics as far as we could given undergraduate mathematics and then to push it further using computational techniques,” Koberlein says. The textbook covers primary astrophysics concepts and computational techniques. Examples illustrate how students can refine rough approximations through Mathematica, a powerful computational software. Supplemental to the text is a series of 110 Mathematica “notebooks,” with additional examples and alternative methods. 

“You can get into the nitty gritty and run different models, different computations and methods,” Koberlein says. “The notebooks are where you really can play around with the stuff. The text and the notebooks are designed to go hand-in-hand.”

Mathematica can be modified to work on increasingly more powerful computers, from a laptop to a supercomputer cluster, 
he says.

“Computers have gotten to the point where you can start analyzing enough data and doing sophisticated enough models that you can, in many instances, start doing real astrophysics on a desktop,” Koberlein says. “You can do publishable work on a desktop, and that hasn’t been the traditional case. Anyone with a laptop can do some real work if they know how to do it.”