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High-Energy Astrophysics
Crab Nebula.jpg
ASTR 406
Section: 101
Instructor: Ilaria Caiazzo
Office: Hennings 310 C
Office Hours: W 14-15
Class Schedule: MWF 13-14
Classroom: Hennings 302
Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion

High-Energy Astrophysics

High energy astrophysics studies the most violent and energetic events in the Universe: the explosions of stars, matter falling into black holes, the most luminous explosions after the Big Bang: gamma ray bursts. In this course, we will first lay down the physics involved, studying radiative processes and the fluid dynamics of shocks, and then we will move on to study specific objects: supernova remnants, neutron stars and white dwarfs, accreting black holes.

Unit 1: Radiative processes

  • Radiative transfer
  • Relativistic electrodynamics
  • Radiation from a moving charge
  • Bremsstrahlung
  • Synchrotron radiation
  • Compton scattering
  • Gas processes including fluid dynamics and shocks
  • Degenerate ideal gas equations of state

Unit 2: Fluid dynamics

  • Fluid equations
  • Hydrostatic equilibrium
  • Sound waves
  • Shock waves
  • Blast waves

Unit 3: Degenerate ideal gases

  • Generic expressions for n, P and E
  • Distribution functions
  • Classical ideal gas (assignment)
  • Photon gas
  • Fermion gas at zero T
  • Chandrasekhar model
  • Highly degenerate fermion gas

Unit 4: Compact objects

  • White dwarf and white dwarf cooling
  • Supernovae
  • Supernova 1987 A
  • Neutron star structure and cooling
  • Pulsars, neutron star binaries
  • Black holes
  • X-ray binaries
  • Spherical (Bondi-Hoyle) accretion
  • Accretion-disk structure, temperature and luminosity predictions
  • GW 170817

Meeting Times

Class MWF 1pm-1:50pm Hennings 302

Office Hours W 2 pm-3 pm Hennings 310 C

Suggested Reading

I have not assigned a required textbook for this course. 

  • For radiative processes, I will follow the notes written by Jeremy Heyl and available at:

  • If you want to dig deeper, I would also like to point you to the excellent and thorough lecture notes of Nick Kaiser which cover all of the topics in Unit 1 (and a whole lot more as well):

  • For special relativity, I followed the notes available at this link (I did't cover all of it):

  • For the neutron stars and black holes, a good reference is the book by Thierry J.-L. Courvoisier, High Energy Astrophysics, an Introduction, available online:

For further reading:

  • James Lattimer has prepared a detailed monograph on stars, stellar atmospheres, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes as well as the underlying physics (Unit 2): PDF

  • Henk Spruit has prepared excellent and very thorough notes on accretion disks with a focus on X-ray binaries and cataclysmic variables (Unit 3):

  • Charles Dermer presented a nice series of lectures on gamma-ray bursts (Unit 3):

These links are mainly for you to get some different points of view to aid your learning. If you come up with some other useful links, I would be happy to add them here!

Grading Scheme ASTR 406

20% Midterm 

50% final exam on the entire course

30% homework assignments (five in total for 6% each)

You can decide to be graded only on the midterm and final (and not on the assignments). In this case, the midterm would count 35% and the final 65%. Please let me know if you prefer this option by the 24th of September.

Grading Scheme ASTR 506

10% literature review presentation

15% Midterm 

50% final exam on the entire course

25% homework assignments (five in total for 5% each)

You can decide to be graded only on the presentation, midterm and final (and not on the assignments). In this case, the presentation would count 10%, the midterm 25% and the final 65%. Please let me know if you prefer this option by the 24th of September.

Learning Goals

As a result of taking this course you will be able to

  • Explain fluid dynamics and shocks as applied to astrophysical gases
  • Compute the expected amplitude and spectrum of emission for bremsstrahlung, synchrotron and Compton radiation
  • Explain quantitatively the evolution of a supernova remnant
  • Describe quantitatively the internal structure and cooling characteristics of white dwarfs and neutron stars
  • Describe the various different observed types of neutron stars
  • Describe Schwarzschild and Kerr black holes
  • Explain quantitatively Bondi-Hoyle (spherical) and Shakura-Sunyaev (disk) accretion flows
  • Compare the predictions of disk accretion theory, including the magnetized case, with observations of X-ray binary systems and accreting white dwarfs
  • Explain quantitatively the leading model of gamma-ray bursts

Tutorial on Electrodynamics (14 September)

On the 14 of September, Graham Reid, your TA, will lead a review lecture on electrodynamics.


TA: Graham Reid, email:

  • Assignment "zero", due Sep 10: Look at the first chapter of Griffiths' Introduction to Electrodynamics. If you don't feel confident with the math, do some of the problems at the end of the chapter.
  • Reading assignment, due Sep 24: Read section 1.10.1, Rosseland Approximation, on page 18 of Jeremy's notes.
  • Assignment 1, due Sep 24
  • Assignment 2, due Oct 10
  • Assignment 3, due Oct 26
  • Assignment 4, due Nov 16
  • Assignment 5, due Dec 6


  • The midterm is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7, at class time. It going to be on everything that we have done up to the Chandrasekhar model included.
  • The final is scheduled for Monday, December 10, at 3:30 pm. It is going to be on the entire course.

Both the midterm and the final exam will be open books. Also, a list of relevant constants will be provided. You can bring a normal calculator. No phones or computers etc.

The possibility to take an oral exam will be given in the days following the final exam (most probably on the 13-14 December). The oral exam will be on things that we saw in class and can only improve your grade. Please let me know if you are interested in taking the oral exam by the end of November.