Astronomy Answers
AstronomyAnswerBook: Astronomers and Astronomy


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1. Astronomy and Astrology ... 2. If we had no astronomy... ... 3. Astronomy and Cosmology ... 4. Astronomy for Beginners ... 5. An Astronomer's Job ... 6. Education in Astronomy ... 7. Who Pays?

This page answers questions about astronomers and about astronomy in general. The questions are:

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1. Astronomy and Astrology

An astronomer does astronomy and an astrologer does astrology. Astronomy is a science that studies things beyond the Earth (such as planets and stars and galaxies): What are they and how do they work and where do they come from and where do they go? Astronomy investigates these things in the scientific manner, with mathematics and physics and chemistry and technology.

Astrology is based on the very old idea that things that happen on Earth are associated with things that happen in the sky. If that is true, and if you can predict what is going to happen in the sky, then you should be able to predict what will happen on Earth. A long time ago, people thought that the sky said things only about divine or at least important people on Earth, such as kings, but later astrologers thought that the position of the planets says something about the life of ordinary people, too. Astrological predictions are usually quite vague and do not work better in scientific tests than can be expected based on coincidence. There is no scientific basis for astrology. You can read more about this on the Page about Astrology.

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2. If we had no astronomy...

If we didn't have astronomy, then we'd probably not have any kind of scientific inquiry, and then innovation and discovery would have been stifled, so we'd probably not have any modern technology such as electricity and phones and television and cars and modern hospitals.

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3. Astronomy and Cosmology

Astronomy is the study of everything outside of the Earth, and of the planet aspects of Earth. Cosmology is the study of the Universe at the largest scales: What is its structure? How did it form? What is its fate? So, cosmology is part of astronomy.

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4. Astronomy for Beginners

For most of the world, I can only give very general tips for finding astronomy courses for beginners. You can search for them on the internet using your favorite search engine. Try searching for "astronomy course for beginners", "astronomy for dummies", "astronomy club", "planetarium", or "star party". Add the name of your town, region, or country to the search key.

For the Netherlands and Belgium, I can refer more specifically to:

You can also visit your local library, and check out your local Public Television station. Such stations sometimes broadcast courses.

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5. An Astronomer's Job

An astronomer does astronomy, which means she investigates astronomical things such as planets or stars or black holes or galaxies or the Universe. Just like for many other sciences, there are so many things to study that an astronomer must choose which kind of things she'll investigate. There are astronomers who study the formation of magnetic field on the Sun for a few years, and other astronomers who study the atmosphere of Venus, and yet other astronomers look at the movement of stars in a globular cluster. These are but examples: there are hundreds of other astronomical things.

An astronomer is curious and wants to know everything about her subject: how is it put together, how does it work, why does it work that way, where did it come from, and what will happen to it?

Astronomical things are always far away in space, and nearly always so far away that we cannot go there. So, an astronomer must make do with measurements that are made using telescopes (such as the radio telescopes of Westerbork and Dwingeloo) or using satellites (such as the Dutch ANS or the partially Dutch IRAS and BeppoSAX satellites), or even with telescopes in satellites (such as the American Hubble Space Telescope). Those instruments often use smart tricks so they can measure things that we can't see, such as radio waves or infrared light or the strength of magnetic field or the speed of clouds of gas.

Things that can be seen with cheap telescopes have been investigated many times already. If you want to find new things, or want to see smaller details of already known things, then you must use a big telescope that is very expensive. There are only a few of those very large telescopes in the world (or in space), so very many astronomers want to use them. That's why an astronomer only once in a while gets some time on such a telescope to make observations.

Most of the time, an astronomer is not behind a telescope but rather in the office (often at a university), studing measurements and looking at them in different ways, or inventing new ideas about how her subject might work and how she could test that, or thinking of or building new instruments to get even more clever measurements. These days, those things are often done using computers, so it is good for an astronomer to be able to handle a computer and write computer programs of her own.

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An astronomer's job tends to be for a similar number of hours a day as other regular jobs in the same country, i.e., usually about 8 hours a day. However, astronomers mostly choose a job in astronomy because they really want to do that kind of work, so they tend to put in more hours than their job contract asks for.

Astronomy is a very international science, in which there is lots of collaboration with colleagues in other countries. Conferences are organized frequently, where astronomers show and discuss their latest discoveries with each other. It is common for astronomers to spend at least a few years living and working abroad.

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6. Education in Astronomy

You have the best chance of getting a paid job as an astronomer if you have a doctorate (PhD) degree in astronomy or physics. For this, you must first take lots of physics and maths in the type of high school that prepares you for university (if your country has different kinds), and then get a masters (MSc) degree in astronomy or physics at the university, and after that get a doctorate degree in astronomy or physics at the university.

English is the most common language in international astronomy. Most important professional journals about astronomy are written in English, and at international conferences English is spoken. It is therefore a good idea to learn how to read, write, and speak English well, if you want to work in astronomy.

I am not familiar with the specific astronomy courses that all universities offer, so I cannot tell you which one is best. You may want to check which universities run or are associated with major telescopes or other major astronomical instruments; those probably have astronomy programs, too, and they may focus especially on the kinds of things that can be observed with those instruments.

I imagine that if you major in astronomy (at whatever university) then you'll have a good grasp of mathematics and physics and researching and computer programming, which should be useful in many kinds of jobs inside and outside of academia. I've known people who had physics or mathematics degrees and got astronomical jobs, and I've known people who had an astronomy degree and got non-astronomical jobs. I myself have an astronomical Ph.D. degree, worked as a professional astronomer for a couple of years, and now have a job as a computer programmer for a software company.

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7. Who Pays?

An astronomer's pay depends on his qualifications, experience, status, and location, just like for other jobs. The most interesting jobs are for astronomers with PhD degrees. Your first job after obtaining the relevant PhD degree (typically when you are in your middle to late 20s) is often a so-called post-doc position, which usually lasts for between 1 and 3 years. For a post-doc position in astronomy in Europe or North America, expect an annual salary of 25,000 - 35,000 US dollars or euros. A permanent position is harder to find but pays better. I expect that the best-paying jobs in astronomy are those as tenured professor of astronomy at a well-known university, but I dare not even guess how much annual pay such a position brings.

About 3.5 years after obtaining my PhD degree, I got a junior but permanent position that paid about $50,000 a year, but that was in an area where housing was then very expensive: I paid about $1700 a month in rent for an ordinary apartment, so the rent took 40 % of my gross income.

In general, scientific research is paid for by a person or organization that expects to gain from it, the same as for other things. That organization might be a company or a university or the government or a group of investors.

Professional scientists have paid employment by definition (otherwise they aren't called professional scientists) and do research for their boss (a university, the government, or a company). Their boss pays for the extra things (such as equipment) that are needed for the research, if the research fits the wishes of the boss.

Someone who wants to investigate something that does not fit in his regular work will have to find financial support for this. In some countries there are organizations (often funded by the government) where people can apply for money for scientific research. You submit a detailed proposal to such an organization, specifying the research you want to do, and the organization divides money among the best of the proposals that meet the requirements that the organization set. Most of these funds are limited to a certain part of science or to certain topics, and it is not easy to write a proposal that has a good chance of being honored, especially if you don't know the latest state of research in the topic of your proposal, or if you have no experience with scientific research, or if you ask for a lot of money.



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