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Physics vs physics with astronomy.

  1. Oct 25, 2012 #1
    Physics vs physcs with astronomy.

    I'm currently applying to College. I know I'm intersted in science. If it wasn't for this book about planets I had when I was 5 I'd prob nvr liked science. So my question is should I major in physics or a physics with an astronomy emphasis? What exactly is the difference between an astronomer and astrophysicist? I feel that just physics is mainly what I want to do but I still have a interest in astronomy. How do I choose which is best for me?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 25, 2012 #2
    Re: Physics vs physcs with astronomy.

    I'm a physics major, but I'm taking two upper-division astronomy courses to satisfy a degree requirement. I'll tell you this about the difference between true astronomy and astrophysics: Astronomy is a lot messier (no pun intended). Here is an excerpt from my Stellar Astronomy syllabus (also, my professor is editor of The Astrophysical Journal, so he knows what he's talking about):

    "Astrophysics combines elements from all areas of physics to offer coherent theoretical models for how the solar system, galaxy, and universe are constructed and how they have and will evolve. If you are looking for that in this course, forget it. Theoretical astrophysics cannot really derive rational models for an object without appealing to observational astronomy. I am not an astrophysicist as the term is sometimes meant (that is, I am not a theorist). I am an observational astronomer, and proud of it. And observational astronomy is what you will find covered in this course. Not how is the universe constructed, but how does one practically assemble the basic data about particular astronomical objects (stars) that can be gainfully used in constructing the story of the universe?"

    Long story short: Astronomy is more focused on the ways we can figure out how to gather data, and what other parameters can be inferred from those observables. Astrophysics is the more theoretical side that you are probably more familiar with.

    Of course, there is a bit of overlap here, but the difference between an astrophysicist and an astronomer is very analogous to the difference between a theoretical and an experimental physicist.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2012
  4. Oct 25, 2012 #3


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    Re: Physics vs physcs with astronomy.

    It's not really the same. Astronomer does not necessarily imply experimental nor does astrophysicist imply theoretical. Maybe once upon a time the two terms did have separate meanings like this, but nowadays they're used interchangably.

    The point: Certainly at the level of a university, there is no difference between the two terms. I.e. if one school says they have an astronomy major and another says they have an astrophysics major, they are essentially saying the same thing (check which courses are included if you really want the details!).
  5. Oct 26, 2012 #4
    Re: Physics vs physcs with astronomy.

    I stand corrected. That is certainly true about the name of college majors, and perhaps also about their interchangeability in conversation. I should have recognized that the OP was referring to academic departments:

    "The name of a university's department ("astrophysics" or "astronomy") often has to do more with the department's history than with the contents of the programs."

    I will say that at least in my limited experience at my school, whether a professor refers to themselves as an astronomer or an astrophysicist usually does say something about what they do. By astronomer they usually mean observational and by astrophysicist they likely mean theoretical, though it's fair to say that in actuality astrophysics is a sub-field of both astronomy and physics:

    "Since the 20th century, the field of professional astronomy has split into observational astronomy and theoretical astrophysics. Observational astronomy is focused on acquiring data from observations of celestial objects, which is then analyzed using basic principles of physics. Theoretical astrophysics is concerned with ascertaining the observational implications of computer or analytic models. The two fields complement each other, with theoretical astronomy seeking to explain the observational results."

    There are also some faculty members at my school who are listed as members of the physics department, but do some work relating to astronomy. For instance: "astrophysical implications of the weak force", "dark matter models and searches", "General relativity and cosmology; black hole physics; gravitational radiation"
  6. Oct 26, 2012 #5


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    Re: Physics vs physcs with astronomy.

    If you want the option of applying to grad schools in astronomy, astrophysics, or physics (many schools combine physics and astronomy so you can earn a PhD in physics and do your dissertation research in astronomy/astrophysics), major in physics and take classes in astronomy. Don't do an 'astronomy emphasis' if it means taking fewer physics classes, because physics is essential for grad programs in astronomy and related fields. They assume you're ready to take graduate level physics classes, so you need to be.
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