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Department of Astrophysics

Description of Courses

Data Science

Contact: Prof. Jan Dirk Wegner

"Machine Learning for Global Development" (spring semester)

This course gives an introduction to machine learning and its application in the context of global development, with a focus on developing countries (e.g., predicting the risk of child labor or chances of a malaria outbreak). By the end of the course, students will be able to critically reflect upon linkages between technical innovations, culture and individual/societal needs.


"AI4Good" (fall semester)

The AI4Good course is a hackathon turned into a full course. At the beginning, stakeholders active in the development sector will describe several problems that could be solved with a machine learning approach. Students will spend the semester on designing, implementing, and testing suitable solutions using machine learning. Progress will be discussed with all course members.


Introduction to Machine Learning for the Sciences

This course is an introduction to the basic concepts of machine learning, including supervised and unsupervised learning with neural networks, reinforcement learning, and methods to make the learned results interpretable. The material is presented with scientific research applications in mind, where data has often very peculiar structure and quantitative accuracy is paramount.

Theoretical Astrophysics and Cosmology

Contact: Prof. Jaiyul Yoo

Theoretical Cosmology: master course on the history of the Universe. Starting with   inflationary expansion in the beginning, we study the Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, thermal evolution of particles, cosmic recombination, and large-scale structure formation.

Advanced Topics in Theoretical Cosmology: master course on more advanced topics in theoretical cosmology. The course provides a more in-depth view of various research areas in theoretical cosmology.

Astrophysical Thinking: phd course on order-of-magnitude calculations in astrophysics.

Topics on Master thesis: relativistic perturbation theory, inflationary models, galaxy clustering, modified gravity theories, weak gravitational lensing, cosmic microwave background anisotropies, primordial non-Gaussianity

Large-scale structure of the Universe, relativistic N-body simulations

Contact: Prof. Julian Adamek

Proseminar Cosmology (AST 293) is a course targeted for students of the Astrophysics or the Astronomy and Astrobiology minors. The topics covered provide a broad introduction to cosmology. Participants learn how to familiarise themselves with new concepts and ideas to the extent that they can confidently present them to a peer audience.

Data Science applications in Astrophysics, High Performance Computing, Galaxy formation and evolution

Contact: Prof. Robert Feldmann

Theoretical Astrophysics: This course covers the foundations of astrophysics with a focus on astrophysical fluid dynamics and radiative transfer. The concepts introduced in this course provide the theoretical background for a variety of astrophysical and astronomical phenomena and are crucial to understand the properties of stars, the interstellar medium, and galaxies. This course is tailored towards Master's students with a background in mathematics, physics, and astrophysics. 


Computational Thinking: The hands-on, 2-semester course introduces students to various concepts in computational modeling, high performance computing, and computer science. It is organized around a series of computational challenges which fosters an understanding of a broad range of computational topics in order to successfully tackle them. The course targets Master’s students in the Computational Science program as well as graduate students from the Computational Science and Data Science doctoral programs. 


Introduction to Data Science: This course introduces basic concepts in data science and data analysis such as supervised and unsupervised learning techniques, Bayesian methods, and Deep Learning. It is tailored towards students with a background in Natural Sciences or Computer Science. Participating students will have the opportunity to design, carry out, and present a data-science related project of their choosing during the course.

High Performance Computing

Contact: Dr Doug Potter

High Performance Computing (spring semester)     

This survey course covers the basics of High Performance Computing, starting with an introduction to the architecture of supercomputers, the Unix/Linux operating system and how to use a terminal emulator to connect remotely. We then review the basics of code editing, version control and compiling. We will present in detail how to make job submission scripts for SLURM, a widely used batch control system. After learning how to compile a code with the Message Passing Interface (MPI) library and OpenMP we will cover more advanced aspects of compilation and optimisation, and learn how to launch a parallel program on the different university clusters and supercomputers. Next we will present in detail how to program a parallel code using both MPI and OpenMP and describe both the hardware and software specifics of parallel computing. We will also present the MapReduce parallel computing paradigm, and apply it to the ScienceCloud computing infrastructure at the University. We will learn about different parallel computing strategies and their tradeoffs. Finally we will introduce the concept of GPU programming using both the CUDA programming language and the OpenACC library.        

Advanced High-Performance Computing (fall semester)

Building on the skilled acquired in High Performance Computing, students will focus on writing their own parallel codes as well as modifying existing codes. The focus is maximizing performance by choosing the optimal algorithms and hardware support for their scientific problems

Theoretical Astrophysics, Star, Planet and Galaxy Formation

Introduction to Astrobiology

Contact: Prof. Ben Moore   

An overview of astrobiology - the study of the origin, evolution of life on Earth, the possibility of life on other worlds and how we can discover its presence. We address some old and fascinating questions: where we came from, where we are going, are we alone in the universe and what life could be like out there amongst the stars.    Requirements This class is a core part of the minor program “Astronomy and Astrobiology” and is open to all students of the University with no requirements. It is recommended to start Minor’s classes after the first year so as not to overload you during the important first year of lectures. This is only a suggestion and some students take the class during their first year of studies.   
1. What is life? Characteristics from replication to thermodynamics.  
2. How life works I: Biochemistry of life, from the cell to the ribosomes and genetic code   
3. How life works II: Extremes of life on Earth, from archaea to tardigrades   
4. Evidence for first life, conditions on the early Earth   
5. Abiogenesis I: The last common ancestor and the origin of organic molecules   
6. Abiogenesis II: How to form a replicating evolving living thing   
7. Habitability I: Lessons from Earth, our evolving Sun, climate history, feedback loops   
8. Habitability II: Carbon cycle, history of oxygen, role of Moon   
9. Life in our solar system - the grand tour, Mercury to Mars   
10. Life in our solar system - the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn   
11. Planet formation – origin of the Earth   
12. Exoplanets, discovery, characterisation and properties   
13. The search for life out there   
14. Galactic habitability & alien anatomy.   

Material Lectures, lecture notes, exercise classes, research papers and popular articles    Assessment Written exam, semester performance within exercise classes. The exam usually takes place in mid/end January.   

Attendance Students attending this class come from all faculties of the university. Because students taking this class come from all faculties of the university, from law and economics to geography and biomedicine, there are sometimes clashes with other compulsory lectures/exercises. We can usually find a solution to this.   


Astronomy Field Trip

Contact: Prof. Ben Moore and Prof. Ravit Helled

Your task is to each take a calibrated image of a deep sky object that you cannot see with your eye. i.e. nebulae, the andromeda galaxy, the Milky Way etc. We hold an introductory lecture, one evening in the first or second week of the teaching semester. This is to explain the field trip class to you and to give you background information for astrophotography with dslr cameras. Students are divided into groups of two or three and each group receives equipment (tripod, startracker, ballhead and a camera if your group does not have access to one). Attendance of this lecture is mandatory to continue with the class. Students must be enrolled in one of the minor programs “Astronomy & Astrobiology” or “Astrophysics”. We hold a field trip one night outside of Zurich where you can take data. You can practise beforehand, and ideally you can take the equipment on your own into the mountains where there is less light pollution and fog. Note that the weather in the Unterland can be very foggy/cloudy and it is not guaranteed we can hold the field trip. Because we wait for good weather, you will only receive a few days notice for the field trip. You do not have to attend the trip and can take images on your own. You will write a short report detailing your work. This class takes place each semester and books out very quickly. We have a maximum of 27 students. The field trip is a lot of fun and you will learn a great deal about basic astronomy and astrophotography.   


Astrobiology proseminar

Contact: Prof. Ben Moore   

This proseminar gives you the opportunity to explore current research topics in Astrobiology. Research papers can be chosen from one of the main Astrobiology research journals, or from any journal if the research paper is highly relevant to astrobiology. Students will present an overview of the general research topic and results from the research paper by composing a video presentation.   
Target groups: Any student enrolled in the Astronomy and Astrobiology, or Astrophysics minor programs.
Prerequisites: “Introduction to Astrobiology” must have been taken.
Assessment: video presentation and active participation.
Location: The proseminar will be online only, no classroom meetings. Further information about the proseminar will be provided during the first week of the semester.   


Astronomy Practicum I and II 

Contact: Prof. Ben Moore   

In this practicum we focus on observational astronomy. You will learn about astronomy & the night’s sky, coordinate systems, CCD imaging, image processing, attention to detail and more. The practicum is split into two parts. Part I is a prerequisite for part II. For part I you will carry out project work on your own in your own time. There are no lectures apart from an initial introductory meeting in which I describe the project for part I – this is usually held online. Further information will be provided during the first week of the semester. You will be given raw astronomical data that you have to manipulate and analyse. You will write a report about your results.    The practicum is open to all students with no requirements. The credit points can be counted towards either of the minor programs in either Astrophysics or Astronomy & Astrobiology. Because we have a limited amount of equipment, space is severely limited for part II and priority is given to students enrolled in the above minor programs. Typically, less than a third of the students will be able to continue to part II (we only have two telescopes with CCD cameras and can take a maximum of 12 students). Part I has no space restrictions and can be booked in the course booking system. Part II is on request only, after completion of part I. For those students who go on to part II, this gives you experience in how to plan and prepare for taking your own data with the telescope. In part II you will work in groups of two or three which will be organised after you have completed part I. There is a lot of equipment to transport and you can learn from each other. Within your group you must each take your own data of a different object. You will only be officially enrolled in part II of the course once you have submitted the final part II report so that a grade can be assigned. This is to avoid ‘fails’ due to poor weather or broken equipment. You can only pass part II and receive a final grade if you manage to take and analyse your own data. Please note that around half of the students who begin part II will not complete it for various reasons, including bad weather, broken equipment or they find it too challenging. Do not attempt part II if you are relying on the credit points, especially in your final semester! Part II is worth 6ECTS which is the equivalent time as a big lecture course and its associated problem classes. That is because this practicum is difficult – you will probably need to spend over 150 hours of time on your project to succeed. If you are not seriously motivated, do not start. However, if you stick with it and put in some time learning, reading, trying, failing, trying… then you will learn a lot about astronomy and you can produce quite spectacular images and obtain insights into stars and their evolution. You should plan on spending at least 7 nights outside at night with the telescope.