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Physics Observational Astrophysics vs Theoretical Astrophysics (Pros & Cons)

  1. Jan 29, 2010 #1
    Hi there! Long time lurker first time poster.

    I have to choose a major this year and I was looking at Astrophysics (yes, it is a major at my university) however I was reading the university handbook and in 3rd year (I'm entering my second year now) I have to choose between theoretical and observational astrophysics.

    So I was just wondering what are the Pros and Cons of each area and is there really much distinction between the two?

    I'm sorry if this belongs in the academic guidance forum but I think comparing two fields is more of a careers type thing.

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 29, 2010 #2
    I would say for you that it's more a question of your own interests. Observational astrophysics will obviously be on the experimental side of things and theoretical, well, on the theoretical side...

    In your undergrad courses there will likely be a big difference between the topics looked at, for introduction sake, rather than a theoretical approach or observational approach to the same system.

    Since you asked for pros and cons, i'll tell you about my own preference.

    Theoretical work was more fun to me at that level. The mathematics was more demanding (this is certainly not always the case, but for me, it was) because the observational material we tackled was always constrained by what-could-technically-be-measured and the like. I didn't like the 'assumptions' and approximations that were made in a lot of observational work (note: this is more of a problem with my own mindset: approximations make work practical! and aren't made lightly). Certainly this happens in theoretical courses as well, but for me those felt more abstract, whereas observational courses were describing something 'real' - i found it hard to get used to the idea of 'settling' for an approximation.

    I enjoyed the theoretical work we did on making predictions for a system, supposing what would happen if some parameter was different. Not always because observations needed to be explained, but just to see what the result was.

    My experience probably isn't a fair representation of what the options will be like: i would have a look at the notes yourself and see what you think you'll enjoy. Either way, it's unlikely to constrain you in terms of career options or the like no matter what you choose.
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