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Did you get anything out of your Astrophysics major?

  1. Jun 26, 2011 #1
    I'm finished with most of my Astrophysics bachelors and I find myself struggling to think about what I learned about the universe as a whole. I did the major because I'm very contemplative of the existence of everything. I thought that studying the universe, which is infinite, and trying to see how we are making sense of it, would help me think about huge concepts such as the meaning of life, etcetera.

    This is NOT what happened. Unfortunately I ended up finishing the degree (w/ one class to spare) in half the time because I started late, so I was studying my rump off almost every waking hour of each day and didn't have enough time to really ponder what's going on. But now it's summer and I finally have time to think about what I put all those hours into studying. But I'm kind of underwhelmed now that I know all this stuff about the universe because ultimately I'm brought back to the same question I've been asking since I was a teenager: why should we believe anything about what we see with our telescopes? I.e. Plato's Allegory of the Cave where there are people in a cave that see shadows on the wall and believe the world is 2D because they can't see 3D objects casting the shadows. We're seeing celestial objects communicated to us by proxy of EM waves and all our theories of the universe are based on that. Fine. But, you know....what's *really* going on? MMmm? It's kind of unsatisfying.

    I'm still kind of fuzzy about parallax too. After trigonometric parallax begins to lose precision after a certain distance, how do we calculate the radius of astronomical objects?

    I've gone on a schschpiel (sp) about how I feel about the major. What did you learn? What are your opinions about the universe and meaning of life?

    I'm not a hippie by the way. Like Patton Oswald, I too despise hippies. That doesn't mean I'm not interested in thinking about the meaning of life.
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  3. Jun 26, 2011 #2


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    Perhaps you should have majored in Philosophy instead! How can we believe anything we see?

    I find it hard to believe you majored in Astrophysics without learning that. Paralax can give us the distance to stars that are within a reasonable distance and we can measure their brightness and their spectrum. There are enough stars within that distance to establish a realtionship between "true brightness" (the brightness we see corrected for distance) and the spectrum. So seeing the spectrum of a much more distant star gives an idea of its true brightness which we can compare to apparent brightness to calculate its distance.

    I am disappointed to hear that you "despise" anyone. Nor do I see why you would even connect an interest in philosophy with "hippies". (Do they even exist any more?)
  4. Jun 26, 2011 #3
    Hello bateman.

    Quite frankly' it does not look like that you have enjoyed your bachelor. To understand the universe, over the average person, and maybe even to a professional level where it becomes your occupation takes a huge passion and motivation - like everything else.

    Of course you need to get very into math since mathematics is the language of the universe, also chemistry, physics all the theories and observation and of course to impose the right questions .

    What I am trying to say is if you don't have that passion you will loose your motivation and eventually drop out.

    So if you're anywhere near considering taken your major you will need to have your passion with you.

    As HallsofIvy has pointed out its disappointed that you despise anyone.

  5. Jun 26, 2011 #4


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    An astrophysics bachelor isn't designed to teach you about the the meaning of life, the true purpose of the universe, or any garbage like that. As HallsOfIvy said, I think you wanted the philosophy department! Astrophysics is a quantitative science, which will tell you all about how things work, but ultimately will be unsatisfying when it comes to those why questions.
  6. Jun 26, 2011 #5
    Hey guys, thanks for responding. I think I was a little too exuberant when I wrote that post. What I'm really interested in knowing is what you guys learned from your major. I'm not saying that I didn't learn anything. I'm definitely focusing on what I didn't learn rather than the volumes that I did. What I'm saying is that the tools that I've been given to think intelligently about the universe are kind of unrelated to the philosophy of thinking about the universe (which some of you pointed out I should have majored in).

    Yeah I know that parallax is an elementary thing, but it has just confused me throughout the major.

    I don't really despise anyone, I was trying to be funny and was aiming for hyperbolic sarcasm. Hippies annoy me sometimes when they smoke in front of Starbucks and have festivals in the canyons and don't clean up after themselves. BUT they're humans and they deserve to live.
  7. Jun 26, 2011 #6
    Did you really expect to get around the Allegory of the Cave by majoring in astrophysics? Ponder the meaning of your data, by all means. But philosophers can never know anything, and you don't need to be a philosopher to philosophize. What your degree gives you is the knowledge base with which to ask intelligent questions. It's not a bag of answers to everything in the universe. You've only just been taught how to think. Only now can you really start to know what needs to be known, and maybe -- just maybe -- you can find some nuggets of solid fact.
  8. Jun 26, 2011 #7


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    Through the degree you go through a series of exercises replicating historical thought processes and investigations. The point of this is not so much to give you an encyclopeadic knoweldge of everything the collective scientific community knows, and how they know it, because that would be virtually impossible.

    Instead it gives you the tools to start your own investigations, to properly define what it is you don't know and devise a scheme for figuring out what you want to know. Academically this skill set can be brought forward to graduate school, where your skills are refined and you focus on pushing the edge of scientific understanding. Or, it can be transferred elsewhere.
  9. Jun 26, 2011 #8
    Awesome post. You see the big picture well. Not many people have that trait.
  10. Jun 30, 2011 #9
    It is certainly true that you can still ponder the questions you are interested in without majoring in philosophy. It seems you are interested in the process of inquiry, how we come to believe things and how we find justification for beliefs. You suspend yourself in a state of doubt about what you actually know because you have seen that we are fallible, yet you lack the reasoning skills to see why some things are better justified than others. I know this state of mind personally. I suggest you study various forms of inference and logic and read about scientific methodology and the nature of perception and certitude about beliefs. Then you may be able to see why you should believe something or not believe something. If you give up the idea that knowledge consists of having a complete picture of something that is either absolutley true or absolutley false, you can begin to approach ways of viewing how your thoughts accord with reality that aren't so rigid yet equally perplexing ;). Remember that the mind can spin an infinity of logical possibilities about how reality could be and thus put you in a world of intellectual vertigo because you must choose (to some extent) one, however logical possibility and empirical possibility or actuality are very different concepts.

    Your Astrophysics major is great for what you want, you just have to know how to use it. When a musician wants to play music he may go out and learn lots of chords and scales and still be perplexed: "How come I cannot play like such and so? I learned all of the chords and scales." They have what they need, they have simply not put the time into internalizing the language, thinking with it so intuitively that it is an extension of their way of perceiving. It isn't always a matter of the information or tools you have so much as how you put it al together Now you must use the language to think and put things together in new ways. Hope I could help. Good luck.

    P.S. Creating messes and going to a mainstream corporation doesn't seem like hippie behavior
  11. Jun 30, 2011 #10
    Life has no 'ultimate meaning' that can be summarised in an astrophysical equation or research paper - trying to find such an equation hasn't worked for anyone, so far, and it isn't obvious that this approach might be better than any other meaningful activity! For me, happiness is 'the goal', and the best way to happiness is to have 'a project'. Anything that can stretch you, but is not too difficult, fits the bill. Astrophysics can provide projects like that, so it's worth pursuing ... but that can be said for any activity that can stretch you, from writing poetry to boat building.
  12. Jun 30, 2011 #11
    I've had the opposite reaction. I think it's really cool that we know so little about the universe, and it's cool to spend years and years to find *anything*.

    As far as "why should we believe anything about what we see with our telescopes?" My answer is that it doesn't matter. If it turns out that I'm studying shadows and illusions, then I'm studying shadows and illusions. On the other hand, if what I see with a telescope is an illusion, and I'm living in the Matrix, then I really can't trust what I see without a telescope.

    Maybe we are stuck in the Matrix. Either we can figure out that we are stuck in a computer simulation or we can't. If we can't then it doesn't matter.

    Besides, I don't care what is *really* going on.

    Google for cosmological distance ladder.

    I've learned that the universe is wonderously complex and confusing. I also learned a lot about how to program C++ on supercomputers to model neutrino diffusion, which can be used to make $$$$.

    I don't know.
  13. Jun 30, 2011 #12
    Astrophysics assumes certain philosophical assumptions, and a lot of those assumptions are the minimum set to be able to say anything about the universe. Also, trying to figure out what *is* the philosophy of astrophysics and science is something that you can spend years trying to understand.

    The other thing is that I think you will be disappointed if you study philosophy. One thing that will likely happen is that you'll be exposed to a lot of different ideas about "what is the meaning of life?" and you'll start asking questions that make you even more confused "what is the meaning of meaning?" And then there are philosophies which believe that you can't figure out the universe through thought and reason.

    You might be interested in David Kaiser's new book "How the Hippies Saved Physics"


    Also, if you are trying to figure out the meaning of life, it will help if you study the history and the philosophy of the hippie movement. For example, hippies do a fair amount of drugs because there is this idea that LSD will get you closer to "true reality."
  14. Jun 30, 2011 #13
    My observation is that it's largely a social process. I happen to think that physics is more important than football because of who my parents were and what my childhood background was. Someone with different parents, would believe different things, so I don't think it's possible to understand the process of inquiry without looking at the people and the social dynamics involved.

    That's why the hippie movement is fascinating. It was an act of social rebellion in the 1960's.

    The problem with logic is that you need a base set of beliefs to start the process. Also logic is extremely brittle. If you make an error, then everything falls apart, and this is bad in a world in which people and observations are falliable. Also certitude is a social construction.

    And you have to figure out how to make things economically work.
  15. Jul 1, 2011 #14


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    I think what two-fish said is important.

    The fact that we know so little about anything is great because it leaves us to discover so much about anything whether its the whole universe, our planet, or even why the grass is green.

    One thing I have noticed is that a lot of good philosophers throughout history have been scientists in a respective field. They make great philosophers because they have spent most of their lives studying something specific intensively and get a kind of understanding that allows them to make really insightful statements.

    One example that stands out is Kurt Godel (with an umlaut o). His theorems in logic paved the way for great philosophies about creating the ultimate axiomatic theories of the world.

    I don't think anyone will be able to understand everything (or even a fraction), but if you end up understanding at least one thing (at least having support for your thoughts), then that is better than knowing nothing at all.

    In my experience, if you keep at something long enough, you should be able to understand something (and have support for that hypothesis/conjecture) no matter how trivial you think it might be.
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