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Path to astronomy

  1. Nov 13, 2009 #1
    I wasn't sure where to post this so if I'm in error please excuse me.

    I find myself in a rather comfortable position of being enrolled in uni but having plenty of time to spare. Furthermore, my current academic lets me pick a major/minor next year of..well almost anything really.
    I've been rather obsessed with astronomy but I've never had the chance to really study it. On top of this, while I've had maths and physics in high school it's all rather blurry to me now.
    Hence my question to you: what should my path/books to astronomy next year look like?
    The current plan is to start out with brushing up my basic math skills which shouldn't take long and I think I'll move on to precalculus (Stewart?) and Calculus (Spivak I think) next. Then I want to dive into physics but I'm rather lost among all the comprehensive books and names there. It's also unclear to me how far I should take physics before jumping over to astronomy.

    If any of you could enlighten me which books to pick up for self study for maths, physics and ultimately for astronomy and which order/subjects to study specifically for astronomy I would be much obliged. I'm probably going to enhance my self study with online lectures, and I will have access to academic aid (and more importantly, libraries) if need be.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 13, 2009 #2
    I'd recommend just taking an Astronomy 101 course first, just to see how you like it. That generally requires very little math aside from a little algebra.

    Then, depending on the school and exactly what you want to do, you can "jump over to astronomy" anywhere from your freshman year all the way to grad school. Some people declare "astronomy" or "astrophysics" as their major from day one, and go from there. Others get a physics bachelors degree, and don't specialize to "astrophysics" until grad school.

    In either case, I'd suggest taking a 101 level astronomy course just to give you an idea of what it's all about.
  4. Nov 14, 2009 #3
    You can pick up an intro astronomy book that gives you some of the basic concepts. Also a good book once you have some physics classes is Hewitt's Astrophysical Concepts. Also look at Frank Shu's books. If you can get subscriptions to Astronomy, and Sky and Telescope magazine, that's also useful.

    As far as online resources. Celestia. KEphem. Stellarium are useful programs, What's useful about these programs is that textbooks are just a flat piece of paper, whereas programs like Celestia will let you see how an orbit looks from different directions, and stellarium will let you see how the sky changes over time. Also, once you've finished chapter one and two of any intro astronomy text book, go outside to some dark sky, and just spend a few hours watching the sky move.

    One other thing to do on one day, is to look at the time, and note the position of the sun at different times. It's really important to do something like that, because you really need to get your nose out of books and look at the "real world" and connect what you read with what you see in front of you.

    Here's something to do: Go outside, and look at the sky. Record the time. Then go to Stellarium, and punch in that time, and then see how different the sky looks at that moment from different places on earth. Then use celestia and you get to see what the earth looks like from space at that moment.

    Google sky is also cool. Wikipedia is also really useful.

    One other *very* useful thing to do is to find some old textbooks. Find a textbook from the 1960's, the 1940's, the 1920's and 1890's. Reading some older textbooks is useful since you start to understand how our views of how the universe works changes over time. If you have a 2009 edition of a book, it's really interesting to see what the differences are with the 2001 edition.

    The other thing you learn is what *doesn't* change. The way we describe the positions of stars goes back about 2000 years.

    One other web site that you should follow is the Los Alamos Preprint Server at


    Don't worry if you feel overwhelmed by looking at the site. Once you have some basic knowledge, you can find some papers that you can absorb. One thing that I think would be a good idea is if you find a few observational papers to study. The reason reading some observational papers is useful is that if just read textbooks, you get the idea that we think things are true because the textbooks writer says so, whereas if you read some papers (especially observational ones), you get the feeling that we think things are true, because people are pointing their telescopes and seeing certain things, and the textbooks might be wrong (which you quickly discover if you read old textbooks.)
  5. Nov 14, 2009 #4
    One other resource that you can use is that ".Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics". Another good magazine is "Physics Today". Also all the major astronomy papers are online at


    Another site that you will find useful is the American Association of Variable Star Observers at


    There is much, much too much material for you (or anyone else) to absorb so don't try to absorb it all. The way that I look at it is that astronomy is a journey to a different world were people speak math and telescopes. You can think of the intro text books as tourist guides were you can learn the basic language and ask basic questions. Once you find something interesting just go their and wander around.
  6. Nov 14, 2009 #5
    Thanks for the suggestions! Perhaps I should clarify a bit. I know enough about astronomy to want to learn more of it, I just want to make sure I prepare myself properly for it :)
    I can only (formally) take classes in it next year, but I have plenty of time now to make sure my math and physics are up to standards.

    Thanks for the links, I'll be sure to check those out.
  7. Nov 16, 2009 #6
    you mean you're planning to major in astronomy?
    shouldn't you be taking physics and math classes this year then? Astronomy major requires a lot of physics classes. Maybe you should talk to professors in the department.
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