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How did you get into Astronomy/Astrophysics?

  1. Dec 24, 2011 #1
    I'm always a little baffled, whenever I see people talking about their "fascination" with astronomy. I never saw the "big deal" and on the outside, it doesn't look very interesting. I mean, I really dig physics and I'm interested in how things work - like, how bubbles are formed/how they go "pop" or that foamy thing which one can see when waves hit the shore - but I was never able to feel any sort of inclination towards astronomy or astrophysics.

    Maybe when I have a class in it, my opinion will change. Anyway, I just wanted your thoughts on this and how you got to like it, if you do. Or why you don't like it, in case you don't.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 24, 2011 #2


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    I was interested in astronomy since childhood. When you grow up in a region that has mag 6-6.5 skies almost every night, it's hard not to get interested.
  4. Dec 24, 2011 #3


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    I used to go to summer camp at a nearby national park every year, and one year a group of amateur astronomers brought their telescopes. I got hooked; I think I was 11 years old at the time.
  5. Dec 25, 2011 #4
    I think its much more common for people to want to study galaxies and black holes then 'why bubbles go pop'. If you are unable to see their perspective on why they think its fascinating then you're close-minded.
  6. Dec 26, 2011 #5
    I got hooked because I grew up in Florida in the 1970's back when there was something resembling a space program. That and episodes of Star Trek and Doctor Who. If you really want to understand my fascination with astrophysics. Stephen Moffat does a good job explaining all of the emotional stuff with the new Series 5 and Series 6 DW (the start of the episode the Beast Below) is pretty nice about this.

    Also a lot depends on which classes you take. A badly taught class can kill your interest in just about anything.
  7. Dec 27, 2011 #6
    I have to strongly second this. I am very discouraged with astronomy/astrophysics right now due to a course I just took that covered things like magnitude, star formation, stellar evolution, black holes, galaxy classification, etc. It was a very broad, more mathematical, intro course to astrophysics. Was the worst course thus far in the past 3 years. I'm taking a course in gravitational astrophysics next semester and hopefully that one is a little better.

    As for my initial interest in astronomy. I suppose a lot of it was fueled by being exposed to remarkably clear night skies and having the telescope out, there is something mesmerizing about seeing a dot in the sky but looking at it in a telescope and you see the rings of Saturn or the spot of Jupiter. Then seeing the images from Hubble of nebulae and galaxy clusters, especially the deep field image, it invokes a feeling of awe and inspiration to understand how these things came to be and the physics behind it.
  8. Dec 27, 2011 #7
    One thing that I've always been able to do is connect the math with the "feeling." The mathematics of astrophysics is a bit like looking at a race car or airplane and someone hands you the blueprints to see how everything works. I look at a ball of burning gas and someone hands me the blueprints. Something that helps me understand that the math is that I imagine myself reaching into the core of the star. What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like?

    Something that I encourage people to do is to take classes in the humanities seriously. One reason for this is that if you take classes in literature and poetry and understand how to describe feelings and emotions, you can then take the dry mathematics that you learn in physics class and then connected them with the feeling.

    A lot of people get interested in astrophysics and astronomy by reading Sagan and/or Hawking or science fiction like Star Trek or Doctor Who. What's interesting is that at some point, you have to stop reading and start writing. Sagan called Cosmos "A Personal Voyage", and every astronomer or astrophysics takes their own personal voyage through space and time. Humanities classes help you describe your voyage to other people, but also to yourself.

    And not all of the feelings are spiritual or uplifting. My view of the universe is somewhat cold, depressing, and more than a little angry. (see The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin or The Star by Arthur C Clarke to see how nasty the universe could be). Still it's a feeling.

    For me, there is something mesmerizing about seeing a dot in the sky. Looking really closely and then still seeing a dot. What are you? Imagine being in a totally dark room and then seeing a dot of light. You walk toward the dot of light, because you see nothing else. But the light never changes. You still walk toward the light, and then you start keeping careful notes about brightness, color, angular size. You don't stare at the light, because it's really, really faint and if you look at it directly it disappears because the sensitive parts of your eye are in the corner. You keep walking. The light seems to move, but you realize that this is an illusion because you close your eyes for a few seconds at a time, and the light seems still.

    You keep walking toward the light. Days, months, years, decades pass, and you still don't know what that light is. It's still a mystery, but you just keep walking toward it. By walking at a different angles, you've established that the light is very far away and that you'll never reach it. But you still keep walking toward it knowing that you probably will die without understanding what it is.

    That sort of describes my world, and it's different from Sagan's, or Hawking's, or Asimov's, or Rodenberry's, or Sydney Newman's, or Russell Davies's, or Stephen Moffat's.

    Also, one thing that I find fascinating about astrophysics is that once you know just a little about it, then the ordinary becomes extra-ordinary. Let's forget a moment about the stars in the sky and look at the black void between the stars. The black void really shouldn't be there. (see Olber's Paradox) Once you realize *why* this black void just shouldn't be there, then you get chills down your spine every time you look at the night sky, or at least I do, and then you look closely at the sky, and then you realize that the sky is on fire (see Cosmic Microwave Background) and you can watch the heavens burn and smell their ashes.

    Maybe. For me seeing those images makes me sad, depressed, and angry. One problem with physics is that I can hand you the apple, but you have to choose whether or not to bite into it, and once you bite into the apple, I can't control what you end up seeing, and what you might make you wish you had never bitten into the apple. When I look at the Hubble deep field images of galaxies, I see death and the destruction of world. You are watching stars die, you are watching the entire universe die. You look at the temperature curve of the universe. It's like looking at the cooling rate of a corpse. Same thermodynamics.

    And there there is fear......

    Let's go back to the point of light. What I just described of me walking forever toward the unknown light is a fragment of a dream, but it's not a nightmare. I may spend my entire life walking toward a point of light in the sky without never really understanding what it is, but that doesn't frighten me. Where the fragment of a dream turns into a fragment of a nightmare is just moments before I take my last breath and can walk no longer toward the faint point of light in the sky. For no reason at all, it disappears.......
  9. Dec 27, 2011 #8
    Poetic, but I'm not sure I follow you. I looked at Olber's Paradox, and I think it's been conclusively shown that the universe is not a static model of infinite age. So why should the black void not exist?
  10. Dec 28, 2011 #9
    Once you ask the question and work on it, you'll get an answer. It took about a hundred years between the time the question was asked and we had a conclusive answer.

    But the answer is a bit disturbing if you think about it. If the universe is not static and not infinite, then that implies that things must live and things must die, and the blackness of space is a constant reminder of death, which I try not to think about too much.

    One other thing is that my "vision of the universe" is also very heavily influenced by HP Lovecraft and P.K. Dick. One of the things that I like about Lovecraft's horror stories is that he gets his science (including his astrophysics) right. But if the universe is more Lovecraft/Dick and less Sagan/Hawking/Roddenberry, then you have to ask "do you really want to know how the universe works?"

    Then again there is the scene with Rutger Hauer from Bladerunner..... I've seen things you people could not believe....
  11. Dec 28, 2011 #10
    twofish, if you ever wrote a novel/story, I'd buy it.
  12. Dec 28, 2011 #11
    I do see what you mean. The finiteness of the universe is very bleak. At some point in the future, either through heat death or a cyclical universe, existence as we know it will end and there will be nothing but void. Frightening.
  13. Dec 29, 2011 #12
    I'm more interested in getting people to write their own stories. I've taken a lot of writing classes and been good friends with published science fiction writers, but I find it difficult to write myself because a) I don't have time and b) my own writing depresses me, which defeats the purpose.

    People will see different things when they look at the universe. This is good. If you look at the sky and see rainbows and unicorns and candy covered heart shaped chocolates, that's great!!!! I'd like to read some of your stuff when I'm in a bad mood.

    One reason this comes up is writing is writing, and a lot of scientific writing follows the same principles as fiction writing. Writing a scientific paper isn't that different from writing a short story or newspaper article, and you end with things that are funny, tragic, and surprising. Also doing a good talk at a conference is a lot like doing stand up comedy (with hecklers). (Two galaxies walk a bar......) This is why it's important to take humanities courses seriously (although humanities professors can suck the life out of a humanities course as much as an awful physics professor).

    Also, a lot of the reason this comes up is that I'm watching series six of Doctor Who, and in watching Doctor Who I'm looking at how Stephen Moffat sees the universe. Being the curious person that I am, he takes me on the ride, and after it's done, I'm looking at it very closely at what he did. One of the themes of series six is how "childish wonder" (i.e. Amelia Pond in the Eleventh Hour) deals with the fact that universe is quite a dangerous and scary place, and how people that promise adventure and the chance to travel in space and time (i.e. the eleventh Doctor or my dissertation adviser or me) have out of necessity a darker and much less sympathetic side.

    There is one episode "The Girl Who Waited" and in looking at one of the characters there (the old Amy Pond), I was thinking to myself "bitter and angry astrophysics Ph.D" and I sure as hell wouldn't have given the speech she gave at the end of the episode, but then again I'm not her.

    Getting back to "boring professors" one reason I've found that faculty "suck the life" out of the courses that they teach is that they've gotten their enjoyment sucked out of them. If you talk to a lot of faculty, you'll find that deep down, they have all sorts of negative emotions (i.e. anger, bitterness, despair, arrogance, hopelessness) and this comes out in their lectures. You can keep it from coming out by drawing a blank face and not letting any emotion show through, but then you end up with something extremely dry and uninteresting.

    The way that I've dealt with this is by putting my own emotions into the course. So you have a professor give a dry, boring, dead lecture. That's fine. Just give me the skeleton, and I'll put the "spark of life" into the material with my own feelings. You watch Star Trek or Doctor Who and then take that feeling and then the dull stuff that the professor teaches suddenly comes alive.
  14. Dec 29, 2011 #13
    Interesting, I can see your passion.
    I see it as a way of discovering, as in discovering life and new phenomenons.
    What makes us so important when our sun is only 1 out of the billion of other stars in our galaxy. Some of those stars can have planets like our own. It would be remarkable if we did find life out there, especially intelligence.
    I also like studying and reading about astronomy because space is so vast. I also believe that there has to be a creator. If you look at this analogy, who created paintings? Artists! Who created buildings and bridges? Engineers! Who then created the stars, planets and the universe? So there has to be a creator. Why are stars millions of lightyears apart from each other? Is there a purpose why it was made this way? The long distances restricts for us from venturing there and there should be a reason why stars and galaxy are lightyears apart. Maybe there is a knowledge beyond out there, a key, to unlocking to why we have consciousness, life and the universe.
    I like studying the stars because as you see stars at night, that one star your looking at is probably millions of lightyears away but you know it's there and you can see it even though its a million light years away from you.
  15. Dec 29, 2011 #14


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    You are headed down the road of infinite regression. If your world-view requires a "creator", then who created the creator? Just askin'....
  16. Dec 29, 2011 #15
    And when you study the stars and the galaxies, your personal problems and the world problems becomes 0.000000000001% compared to the universe. Say when your on planets in our closest star system, Alpha Centauri (which is 20 lightyrs away) you forget about Earth... Dont know if this mkes sense but thats how I see it.
  17. Dec 29, 2011 #16
    I don't know. Maybe the Creator was just there in the beginning and before the beginning..
    Somethings that we can't measure but our intuition knows that it's there.
    Such as seeing blackholes (is due after a collapse of a fallen star) through the use of technology, but what are the substance that make up a blackhole? We don't know because we can't go near one. What goes inside one? a singularity? incalculable information due to an infinity? I believe the same concept applies to the Creator.
  18. Dec 29, 2011 #17
    Why can't the universe just be there in the beginning and before the beginning? Seriously, nothing about a creator exempts him from your logic. It is quite foolproof. In a finite universe, how did the universe come to be? It's a paradox; one that God is infinitely incapable of solving.
  19. Dec 29, 2011 #18


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    Let's not go into a religious argument here. Get back on topic and answer the OP's question.
  20. Dec 29, 2011 #19
    It should be noted here that lots of people get into astrophysics or religious or quasi-religious reasons.
  21. Dec 29, 2011 #20
    This is an interesting example of how different people can see the universe in different ways. Alpha Centauri has the same rules of physics as the earth, so that when I look at the stars, I see my personal problems and issues because the same rules of physics apply. Stars die for roughly the same reasons that people do. Also we figured out that there is a problem with greenhouse gases from Venus. One other thing is that if you have a career that involves astrophysics then suddenly whenever you look at a galaxy, you can't help but think about grant proposals and office politics.

    One other thing is that sometimes things become less mysterious and maybe less wonderous once you have some understanding of them. When it comes down to it, stars and planets are extremely simple things, and there is no more or less need for any supernatural intelligence than you need for one to create a rainbow or soap bubble. For that matter, you can look at the entire universe in a way that is incredibly simple. The basic equations for the universe can be written in two lines.

    Now you could argue that God creates stars in the same way that God creates rainbows, but that's not what I think most people mean by creation.

    Getting back to Doctor Who. There is this wonderful dialogue from the DVD extra.......


    D: I'm nine hundred and seven. After a while, you just can't see it.

    A: See what?

    D: Everything! I look at a star and it's just a big ball of burning gas. And I know how it began, and I know how it ends, and I was probably there both times. Now, after a while, everything is just stuff! That's the problem. You make all of space and time your back yard, and what do you have? A back yard.
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2011
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