“An educational system isn’t worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn’t teach them how to make a life.” –Unknown
Every now and again, people with all sorts of backgrounds — from some graduate school all the way to having not finished high school — ask me about getting involved in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Often, people’s interest simply come from looking up at night.
I’m not going to lie, this is a huge question, with many different answers. First off, let’s start off assuming that you have no background in math, no background in physics, and that you’re interested in exploring the Universe, and possibly contributing to what we scientifically know. Where’s the first place to go?
Start with your local amateur astronomy club. Many people have this negative idea associated with amateur astronomy; that it’s somehow unprofessional. I’ve got news for you: the average amateur astronomer knows more about night sky observing, than your above average physics & astronomy professor.
That includes me; those of you who are amateur astronomers have probably looked through more telescopes, resolved more objects, and found — firsthand — more interesting things in the night sky than I ever have. (Yes, there are other things that I know, but we’ll get to that.)
Pretty much every major area in the United States (and many others in most parts of the world) have an amateur astronomy club, where enthusiasts get together and share knowledge, telescopes, and the skies together. In my current city, Rose City Astronomers has telescope workshops, a lecture series, special interest/information groups, and perhaps the best place to start: star parties. After all, perhaps my favorite time-lapse video was taken by an amateur at a star party.
But maybe that’s not up your alley. Maybe you aren’t into observing the skies through an eyepiece yourself. Maybe you’re more interested in looking at the spectacular images taken by the greatest telescopes we’ve ever developed, and seeing what can be done with them. Well, I suggest you check out Galaxy Zoo.
Since the galaxy zoo project started, over 60 million galaxies have been classified thanks to interested “amateurs.” In fact, an amateur named Hanny van Arkle found this object in the image above, which even mystified the professionals for some number of months! The object is known as Hanny’s Voorwerp, and although it’s thought to be related to a quasar, no quasar has yet been found. In fact, the greenish appearance led to the creation of a whole new class of galaxies!
But maybe you want to make a living doing this stuff. What career options are there? Well, in the education arena, there are jobs at planetaria (above) and science museums, as well as many outreach projects. However, these types of jobs usually — at minimum — require a bachelor’s degree in physics, astronomy, engineering or education.
But if you’re willing to get a bachelor’s degree, there’s a whole wonderful world that opens up to you…
Instrumentation! From telescope-making to cameras, from automated software to grinding mirrors, instrumentation is one of the most fundamental areas of research into astronomy and astrophysics! Jobs range from working for commercial telescope makers like Celestron and Meade to working for colleges and universities, standalone observatories, or national labs. And while there are many people who go through grad school and get their PhD’s, that isn’t the only way to get involved in this field! For instance, if you wanted to be McDonald Observatory’s Telescope Operator, you don’t need any special training to qualify. And McDonald — my example — is a world-class observatory in Texas!
But what if you want to actually become a professional astronomer? Long nights writing proposals, flying to the observatory, collecting your data, reducing your data, trying to figure out what’s a signal and what’s noise, etc. If that sounds like a dream to you, then you’ll want to apply to graduate school in astronomy and become a professional observational astronomer!
Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t spend most of your time looking through a telescope; you hardly ever use an eyepiece at all! Computers take your data; they’re far more reliable and the data is permanent!
You can observe with a terrestrial telescope or with a Space Telescope, depending on your project! The most spectacular images ever taken, like this one…
…were taken by professional observational astronomers!
The other route? If instrumentation or observing doesn’t do it for you, there’s theory, which is the route I went down. This is incredibly math and physics intensive, and you will spend most of your time writing computer code, running simulations, and trying your best to find approximate solutions to unsolvable equations.
It isn’t for everyone; it’s for the people who love it! And I’m not going to pull any punches, there’s a cost. Graduate school in astronomy or astrophysics — to get your PhD alone — usually takes between five and seven years. And even then, there are many more people with PhDs than there are jobs as professional observers or professional theorists!
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it! But you should only do it if you love it, and only if you love it so much that it will be worth the other things you’ll need to give up in order to do it well.
For many people (including myself), the payoff is huge! The end result is that I get to think about the entire Universe…
and, as much as it makes sense to anyone, it seems to make sense to me, too. But it’s been a lot of hard work, and even for me, there are still huge gaps in my understanding of many things.
But if you’ve got the time, energy, and drive to do it, you can do this at any age. (I knew someone in his early 50s who was in graduate school with me when I was in my early 20s; he’s a professional physicist now.)
And if you don’t want to get involved but you still want to learn about this stuff, well, that’s one of the major goals I’m trying to accomplish by writing this blog!
So I hope you have a little better of an appreciation for what opportunities are out there, and I look forward to discovering this Universe with you, from the subatomic to superclusters of galaxies, and everything in between!