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Day in the life of an astrophycisist?

  1. Aug 23, 2014 #1
    Hi. I'm at a very critical point in my life / education. In 3 months I have to apply to the university I will attend next summer. I'm torn between studying physics or biology - I have had biology for 6 months, physics only for 1 week in my whole life. But I've been interested in astronomy since I was 12, and was also an avid stargazer back then - then things happened in my life and I didn't touch my telescope for another 6-7 years (I'm 20 now). I have been interested in biology too since I was 12-13 and first read about Darwin, but ultimately, if I could do the math (which I'm not good at), astronomy would probably have my greatest interest. I have also considered geology - but it's not nearly as interesting as the other fields. But everytime I'm set on studying astronomy, I feel like I'm "betraying" myself, and that my reall "call" in life is astronomy - and vice versa. But astronomy was the first science to send chills down my spine, I admit (here thinking of my first telescope encounter with M31 on a clear winter night).

    One of the main reasons I'm considering biology is because I could, I assume, be outdoors a lot. I hate sitting still inside, especially when the sun is shining. A 8-16 office job doing say, accounting, would be torture for me. I HAVE to do science, and it's got to be meaningful. Do astrophycisists sit still all day, or do the also travel sometimes?

    But I'm really unsure as to how the daily life of an astrophycisist on job is. What does he do? Does he sit in front of a pc all day, calculating all sorts of abstract measures? I know they don't use telescopes that much. But what do they actually do? Research? Can somebody describe to me how a usualy day could look like?

    I really hope some people will answer - I'm literally blown away by all the possibilities of the different studies, and I find it VERY hard to choose one. So any guidance is warmly appreciated!!

    Thanks in advance.

    PS: Sometimes I get discouraged and almost want to drop science alltogether, because due to certain life circumstances I will be 21 when finish high school and start university - which is much older than the average student, especially the science students I think. Einstein said that if you haven't made your major contribution to science before you were 25, you would never amount to anything. And I haven't even graduated when I'm 25!
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  3. Aug 23, 2014 #2
    I was also that avid star gazer at 12, but also the MSc Astronomy student doing all those (really hard!) mathematical calculations, and sitting still all day. I'd avoid physics and astronomy if you aren't good at mathematics, and if you want to be outside a lot. Why not do biology? There are, obviously, many chances to be outside a lot, and many chances to avoid mathematics! I took biology to the age of 18, and fondly remember a marine biology field course. It is fun being outside in interesting places! I often wonder if I wouldn't have had more fun sticking with biology.
  4. Aug 23, 2014 #3


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    I agree with Mal4mac. Astrophysicist has to be good at math and spends a lot of time at the computer.

    Biology sounds great. If you like the outdoors you could take geology classes too, and kind of combine bio with geo. That way you get to go on TWO KINDS OF FIELD TRIPS.

    And paleontology (fossil hunting and reconstructing the history of the evolution of life) involves both biology and geology. You have to understand how the sea level changed and how climate affected life and life affected climate, and how the layers of fossils were laid down. And you learn about how the changing composition of the atmosphere is recorded in layers of ice. Fascinating stuff!

    The most interesting part of Astro these days is studying planets and what they are made of and figuring out how they were formed and what their atmospheres were like in the past etc.

    Doing bio and geology is basically doing ASTRONOMY focused on the planet we happen to be on, and know best.
  5. Aug 24, 2014 #4
    Thanks for the reply. But I am still curious as to what an astrophycisist actually DOES; You need a Ph.D to do research, right? You say they study planets, their history and atmosphere, but surely they don't all do the same? How might a typical work day look like?

    Physics / Astrophysics almost sounds like a dead field... but I want it more than biology. Do you have to be exceptional at math or outstanding in university to get "noticed" and get a really good career in astrophysics, like Newton or Einstein?

    I don't know, biology and geology is interesting, but astronomy is just... something more.
  6. Aug 24, 2014 #5

    You can get better at anything with practice. I wanted to be an engineer but when I first started off in HS my math skills weren't very strong. What did I do? Read, practice, ask for help from tutors and teachers. Eventually by the time college came around my math skills had vastly improved, and as I proceeded through my engineering curriculum they have continued to improve. So if you are deficient in mathematics, get you a book, a tutor or good teacher and practice. I mean you have to take the course anyway so why not spend as much time learning as much as you can from the professor?
  7. Aug 24, 2014 #6


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    It sounds like you haven't done any basic research into what the field of astrophysics encompasses.


    Hint: there are more things to study than planets. There are stars, stellar evolution, the deaths of stars, supernovas, pulsars, black holes, galaxies, ...

    A field of study becomes 'dead' only when all the important questions are answered. In astrophysics, only some of the important questions have partial answers; there are many more questions where our lack of knowledge is quite significant. By deploying better observational tools, like space telescopes and space probes, our knowledge increases and we are able to formulate new questions about what has been observed.
  8. Aug 24, 2014 #7
    I can provide some examples as a grad student that doesn't have the added responsibilities of applying for grant money., observation time, teaching and other bureaucratic worries of a practicing researcher in a university or national lab setting:

    Read the latest papers related to your field of work and/our read up on the standard established literature on it. Talk with other faculty, postdocs and students on your dept often about what they're doing. This can be interpreting astronomical spectra, populations of stars, pulse profiles of variable objects, etc, running simulations in an attempt to reproduce real observations or predict signatures that observers can look for. Code your own simulations (preceded byplenty of pen and paper physics and or numerical analysis) or scripts to do the data analysis you require, spend lots of hours debugging code, learning how to program effectively, write a paper on an interesting or non interesting result or non result. Occasionally you'll have to perform an observation yourself either for your own project or to assist a fellow researcher. I did one remotely last night (yup a Saturday evening). If you work on instrumentation you will spend many hours on the bench building electronics for a telescope antenna or spacecraft.
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2014
  9. Aug 24, 2014 #8
    Ph.D is a research degree, you need a BSc and (maybe) an MSc to do research - although you might have a research project even at BSc level.

    I had only bad days doing astrophysics in my MSc; here's my vision of what a good day might have been like:

    "You acquire data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) archive on the optical spectroscopy of previously unstudied quasars. You acquire, reduce, analyse and interpret a unique dataset before presenting a paper on your findings. This data provides new evidence for the current theoretical model of energy production in quasars and guarantees you tenure."

    I constructed this vision from a description of what looks like a good course in astrophysics, that will give you some idea of what you might get into if you ever get to starting advanced studies and "typical" research:


    Notice - no field work! It's *all* computer work, indoors, and mathematically demanding (although not mathematically impossible... it's not string theory...)

    I'm not sure about astrophysics being "something more" than biology or geology. On the grand scale what's bigger than Darwin's Theory Of Evolution? OK Big Bang Theory is pretty impressive, but can you definitively say it is "more than" Darwin.

    On the more realistic "working scientist" level is delving into the mysteries of quasars "more than" delving into the mysteries of ant society?

    In any case, by saying you are "not good at maths" I think your choice is obvious - Biology and avoiding the more mathematically demanding areas of that subject would seem to be a priority! I've never known a physics researcher say they were bad at maths. Like me, they usually came top of the class at school, then (like me!) most struggled a lot when the really hard stuff was thrown at them. (I barely survived, many times I wish I had studied Biology, only basic maths required. Lots of field trips with nice girls, or stuck in a windowless room beating your head against Arfken - no choice really...)

    Take your telescope with you on your African field trips - you get some great dark skies out in the wild - just don't get eaten by a nocturnal carnivore. And think of those poor "professional astronomers" in their windowless offices hacking computers while you gaze at the moon and stars directly, like Galileo. (That, perhaps, would be more...)
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2014
  10. Aug 24, 2014 #9


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    When you're 18 the difference between 18 and 21 seems enormous. When you're forty, they're basically the same age.

    I don't know if Einstein actually said that quote you're attributing to him or not, but regardless, in today's context, it's absolute bunk. Most scientists today aren't even in a position to begin leading research until their mid-thirties at best.
  11. Aug 24, 2014 #10


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    Hi Kaske, We had company yesterday and I didn't have a chance to reply.I didn't mean to suggest that studying planets was the ONLY thing they do. Astrophysicist work on a great variety of problems. It's far from being a "dead field". I should correct and qualify what I said in our earlier exchange, so that I don't leave you with a mistaken impression.
    I've hung out some with astronomers and taken classes and visited observatories etc. but I'm not an astrophysicist so I only have my IMPRESSIONS gleaned from watching them and talking with them. If you drop into someone's office at the astronomy building on campus the guy is likely to be reading a journal article or working at the computer. There's theoretical work and observational work. To be good at either you have to LOVE mathematics and get a real kick out of working at the computer.
    Today's instruments are largely computer controlled. Even ground based observatories are partially or totally automated.
    I've visited an observatory which is totally automated. It regularly inspects thousands of galaxies for supernovas and feeds the digitized images to astronomers sitting at their computers miles away.
    Of course many of the most important instruments are in space and that is the same story.
    And automated (say) gamma ray observatory in space may see something and send a wakeup call to automated observatories on the ground giving the coordinates and saying "look at this" and the network can start collecting data on an explosion even before any human knows.

    The humans in the picture are provided with huge amounts of numerical data and they have to make decisions about number-crunching. What kinds of STATISTICS to apply to extract significant findings. Observational astrophysics is to a large extent doing statistics. So you have to love math, be good at it, and enjoy numerical work at the computer.

    Some exciting areas: search for exoplanets, studying bodies in the solar system (planets, minor planets, moons, asteroids, comets) and other stuff like solar wind, magnetic fields, the sun itself (!), cosmic rays, searching for signs of DARK MATTER!!!, supernovae of various types, gamma ray bursts (some even more powerful than supernovae and not yet understood), large-scale structure (statistical patterns in the clustering of clusters of galaxies), the statistics of the temperature variations in the COSMIC MICROWAVE BACKGROUND!!!, refining the estimates of various important numbers like for example the expansion rate, what it is now and what it has been throughout history. The list seems endless to me.

    You can get an idea of how astrophysicists spend their time by glancing at their daily output of papers. Just go to arxiv.org and click on astro:
    Here are recent papers grouped by area of interest (alphabetical):
    cosmology: http://arxiv.org/list/astro-ph.CO/recent
    earth and planetary astro: http://arxiv.org/list/astro-ph.EP/recent
    galaxies: http://arxiv.org/list/astro-ph.GA/recent
    high energy (i.e. gamma ray, cosmic ray..) http://arxiv.org/list/astro-ph.HE/recent
    solar&stellar astro: http://arxiv.org/list/astro-ph.SR/recent
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