Physics professors Brian Koberlein and David Meisel take a “back-of-the-envelope” approach to astrophysics and computation in a textbook designed for undergraduate students.
Koberlein, senior lecturer at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Meisel, distinguished professor at State University of New York at Geneseo, co-wrote Astrophysics through Computation, published in June by Cambridge University Press. The authors give students tools to make astrophysics manageable. They explain how to use Mathematica, a powerful computational software, to refine rough approximations.
The idea for Koberlein and Meisel’s collaboration began years ago when they struggled to find an undergraduate astrophysics textbook for a class they co-taught at Geneseo.
“The approach we took with the 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 text covers primary astrophysics concepts and computational techniques with examples. Supplemental to the book 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.
“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. “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.”