Scientific Programming in Python


Course information

This postgraduate course is designed to give a general introduction to the Python programming language and its wider ecosystem, with a focus on the elements most important for data analysis and scientific research.

The course is aimed at students on the MSc Machine Learning in Science (MLiS) programme at the University of Nottingham (for which it is PHYS4038) as well as first-year PhD students at the University of Nottingham and a number of other institutions, via the Midland Physics Alliance Graduate School (MPAGS AS1). Others may be able to join, on request, both for credits or on a more informal (unassessed) basis. Teaching sessions will be delivered to students at remote institutions via online live-stream. Recordings and materials will also be available for asynchronous learning.

As students taking this module are expected to hold an undergraduate degree in a science subject, a limited level of prior programming experience (in any language) is assumed. Please note that, although the majority of the course will be useful for all science postgrads, there will be some subject-specific content, including an overview of key tools for astronomers.

Joining the course

MSc students should enrol via the University of Nottingham module enrolment form, after discussing their options with their tutor.

PhD students should enrol for the module via the MPAGS module sign-up page. If you are enrolling late, please also email the convenor.

Any others wishing to join should email the convenor.


The course is taught by Dr Steven Bamford. Outside of teaching sessions he can be contacted via email, or at his office: A112b in the CAPT building (#25 on the campus map).

Timetable and format

Teaching sessions will held each Monday at 1pm. The main course starts on 7th October 2019 and runs for ten weeks (ending 9th December). Preceding this there is a MLiS-only introductory session on Monday 30th September.

For Nottingham students the course will be delivered face-to-face, in room A13 in the George Green library. Students may use the desktop computers in the room, or bring their own laptops.

The live-stream link for remote students will be made available in advance. Note that all that is required is an internet connection and a web-browser – we will not be using the usual MPAGS access node infrastructure. In order to receive this link you must have enrolled on the course (in one of the ways described above).

Each session will consist of a lecture, lasting up to one hour, followed – after a short break – by an exercise class for local students. Remote students may complete the exercises in their own time.

The course will be assessed by the development of a complete Python program performing some scientific analysis of your choice.


A preliminary outline of the topics is given below. This may be slightly altered and expanded as the course progresses.

Lecture materials

Materials accompanying the course will appear here as the course progresses.

For advance reference, here are the slides used for last year’s MPAGS course.


Solutions to the exercises will appear here as the course progresses.

The exercises and some examples shown in lectures can be found on Github. You are strongly advised to avoid consulting the solutions until you have tried the problems yourself!


To qualify for MSc or MPAGS credits, in addition to attending the majority of lectures you will need to produce a Python program. Your program may address any scientific purpose you like, e.g. data analysis, simulation, modelling, experiment control, visualisation, etc. Ideally the program will do something that is relevant for your research projects, particularly in the case of MPAGS students.

In addition to producing the code itself, MSc students will also give a presentation on their ongoing development, and a short final report. Percentages below refer to mark weightings for students on MSc programmes.

MPAGS credits are awarded for reasonable attendance and an acceptable final code submission; intermediate submissions for feedback are encouraged, but optional. No report or presentation are required.


Your program should (as a rough guide)…

You should submit the source code (.py/.ipynb file), together with pdf/png files of the output plot(s).

Your code should be submitted in the form of a GitHub repository containing the source code (.py/.ipynb file), together with pdf/png files of the output plot(s). The repository should also contain a README file explaining the functionality of the code and explaining how it should be run.

Click here to setup the GitHub repo for submitting your coursework code.

To indicate that you have submitted your code for marking and feedback, create a branch named sub1, sub2 or sub3 as appropriate for the submission stage.

Further details regarding setting up your GitHub repository for submission will be given in the lectures.

There will be three submission deadlines (at 3pm on the respective dates):


MSc students must also deliver a 5 minute presentation (20%) during the workshop on 25 Nov, describing their on-going development.


Along with their final code, MSc students must additionally submit, a short (2–3 sides of A4) report (20%) describing the purpose of the code, any key design decisions, the outputs, and scope for improvements.


If you intend to use your own computer, then, before the course begins, you should ensure that you have working Python interpreter available, ideally the Anaconda distribution (see below). For this course you are strongly recommended to use a recent version (3.4+). Linux and OSX already have Python installed, but you are not recommended to use them! Instead, install a version of Python specifically for your research, as described below. If you have any difficulties installing and running Python, please ask for help during – or shortly after – the first session.

You should use Python 3. While Python 2 is still available and in use, most projects have moved over to Python 3 by now. Note that Python 3 is not backward compatible with Python 2 due to a small number of significant changes, i.e. code that works with Python 2 will not necessarily work with Python 3. Some of the differences will be explained during the course.

Getting Python

You are highly recommended to install Python using the freely-available Anaconda distribution. This gives you the most convenient route to a standalone Python 3 installation with most (if not all) of the modules you need easily available.

If you are missing a Python module, you can usually get it with one of the following (in the order you should try them):

Beware that you can have multiple versions of condo and pip on one computer, each associated with a particular Python distribution (and perhaps a specific Anaconda environment). Make sure are using the correct one!

Using your operating system’s own version of Python, or installing Python in any other manner, is just asking for trouble.

Writing Python

While you can write Python in any text editor, you should choose one with support for Python code, i.e. providing automatic formatting, code highlighting, and ideally integrated documentation. If you’re old-school, Emacs and Vim are good choices. More modern options include: