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New and need direction

  1. Sep 30, 2004 #1

    My name is James and I have been interested in the universe since I was a little kid. My mom used to bring me outside and watch various events in the sky. Recently I have enrolled in school for computer programming and have noticed that the math involved seems to be my greatest interest. I have some basic physics knowledge and have read a few books such as Brief history of time, and a couple of Brian Greene's books. These books though they are great are put more in laymans terms and I am looking for something more scientific. I was wondering if someone could reccomend a good starting book on astrophysics. I have a strong desire to learn but all the books I seem to pick up seem to be more theoretical than scientific. Any suggestions would be great and keep in mind that I am a beginner and need something like a intro to astrophysics book so I am not too lost.

    I ran across this site by accident and have spent every day since reading posts. It is a good feeling to be with others who share the same interests as I do as I live in a town that is very small and it is very hard to find someone who has these interests in mind to share conversation with.


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  3. Sep 30, 2004 #2


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    Welcome, James (orchidpsycho).

    I hope other posters will reply to your question and suggest books to buy or get from the library. Instead of offering books I will ask questions back at you in the hopes of finding out more about your interests.

    You didnt specify a math level (whether or not you had finished highschool math, or if you had studied calculus) but that doesnt matter right now---my reply doesnt depend on knowing that.

    In college when one is going to do an astrophysics major, the first thing one does is take a course in basic-level "General Astronomy"

    a lot of this is: 1.how do stars work?
    2.what can you tell about a star by analysing its light (making a kind of rainbow and looking at the various wavelengths of the colors)
    3. how can you tell the distance to a star?
    4. how can you tell the mass of a star?
    5. what pressure and temperature are stars inside, at the core?
    6. what is the life history of stars of various masses?
    7. what about special classes of stars---variables, red giants, supernovas, neutron stars, pulsars....?
    7. what can you tell from clusters of stars like the Pleiades that you couldnt necessarily tell from studying a single star or a binary pair?

    Do you find questions like this interesting?

    In a basic General Astronomy course you learn a lot of such nittygritty stuff about stars before you get to Larger Scale Topics.

    Larger scale topics are like
    9. what is the structure of our galaxy?
    10. what various kinds, shapes, sizes of galaxies are there?
    11. how can you tell the distance and mass of a galaxy? how do you infer the amount extra mass (dark matter) a galaxy needs to keep from drifting apart---currently a puzzle (we dont see all the mass galaxies would need to hold together according to our usual ideas of gravity so there is speculation about extra matter, so far invisible to us)
    12. what about cosmology? the overall structure of everything we can see, the cosmic microwave background, quasars, the presumed history of it, how the universe might have gotten started, how stars and galaxies get started, how that timetable fits in to the presumed overall timetable of expansion, details of expansion like dark energy.

    A lot of people are drawn to the biq cosmic questions and the big puzzles, before they have learned the nittygritty star science. When you say you want an "astrophysics" book, it sounds to me like you are not going to jump right away to Cosmology topics, but rather want to learn some basic general astronomy.

    If this is true, if this is how your interests lie, then I would suggest learning how the astronomer's distance ladder is constructed.

    from parallax to Pleides to Herzsprung-Russell diagram and Cepheids and redshift and standard candle supernovae.
    (I may be leaving out some steps)

    just that one topic, the construction of the astronomical distance scale, touches on a lot of interesting basic physics----essentially you have to understand something about how stars work and shine in order to find out
    how far they are.

    also, if computer school is a bread-and-butter carreer issue you shouldnt neglect it for astrophysics. Astronomy is a great love-affair which can grab your attention at any stage of life. but there are more jobs in computers, i believe, than there are professional-astronomer jobs.

    also, there are a lot of good astronomy websites. for general astronomy you can try out online textbook-type material and find your level, befor you go out and spend money on books that may be too easy (oversimplified popularizations) or too hard (requiring too much calculus and college physics already)

    a good General Astronomy text should explain the bits of physics it uses as it goes along, and it should rely mostly on highschool algebra/trig with just a smattering of slopes of curves etc.

    well you asked for advice, right? so I gave you a bunch of advice all right!
    remember it is just one person's perspective so get several points of view
  4. Sep 30, 2004 #3


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    Hi James!
    Marcus' advice may have been from one person's perspective but it was a good perspective!
    It is good you find maths interesting, many good and devoted amateur astronomers would have loved to have been professional but their maths let them down, so keep working at it. Motivation to do maths is everything, if you are interested in it for its own sake, or because you like to solve astro problems, doesn't matter so long as you love doing it.
    You may find the best way to find a book to suit you is to browse in a college library, if you can get to one. They ought to have books for beginners right up to post-doctorate level and you can find one to suit you own level.
  5. Oct 2, 2004 #4


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    Marcus and Garth are on target. Math is the foundation. Physics makes it interesting. They go hand in hand. I would say let the math get a little ahead of the physics, but, use the physics to keep the math interesting.
  6. Oct 2, 2004 #5
    Good plan, indeed. Letting the math get ahead of the physics may help make the physics a bit easier, and perhaps a bit more interesting.
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