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What is astrophysics?

Published on 7 February 2024

Astrophysics combines principles from maths, physics, and astronomy to answer fundamental questions about the origin and development of our Universe. 

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What you need to know
  • Astrophysicists need a solid foundation in physics and mathematics. Advanced computational skills are also essential. 
  • Astrophysics often requires processing vast data from telescopes, satellites, and other instruments.
  • Astrophysicists can then formulate theories, create models, and make predictions about the cosmos. 
  • Careers include research scientist, professor, data analyst, and aerospace engineer.

From the dawn of time, people have looked up with awe at the night sky, wondering how the Universe was created, and how the stars formed. Today, astrophysicists combine principles from physics, maths, and astronomy in an attempt to unravel these mysteries of space. They explore topics that range from the life and birth of stars and planets to galaxies, black holes, and the Universe as a whole.

Astrophysicists focus on big questions such as:

  • How did we get here?
  • Are we alone?
  • How does the universe work, how was it created, and how did it evolve?

How is astrophysics different from physics?

Physics is a broad discipline. It encompasses the study of matter, energy, and their interactions. Astrophysics focuses on celestial bodies and the cosmic phenomena that shape the Universe. Astrophysics applies physics principles to understand the behaviour and properties of astronomical objects. It often deals with extreme conditions and distances not found in everyday physics.

How is astrophysics different from astronomy?

The terms astrophysics and astronomy are often used interchangeably. However, astronomy is concerned with observing. It studies the positions, motions, and properties of celestial objects such as stars, planets, and galaxies. Astronomers use ground and space-based telescopes and identify new objects. Astrophysics goes beyond observation. It seeks to understand the physical processes and mechanisms that govern the behaviour of these astronomical objects and how they evolve.

What does an astrophysicist do?

Astrophysicists engage in a variety of activities to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. They:

  • design experiments
  • develop and use sophisticated instruments
  • collect and interpret data from telescopes and satellites
  • write high level code to understand astrophysical phenomena
  • construct mathematical models to explain observations and make predictions
  • publish findings in research papers and present their work at international conferences.

An astrophysicist will usually work for a university or an independent research institution.

Is astrophysics right for me?

If you want a career in astrophysics, you’ll need passion, curiosity, and perseverance. It won’t be enough for you to accept things simply as the way they are – you’ll want to find out exactly why they are that way. If you want to tackle complex challenges, have a strong background in physics and mathematics, and are excited by the prospect of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, astrophysics might be right for you.

To become an astrophysicist, after a relevant undergraduate degree you’ll usually need postgraduate qualifications, including a PhD. If your undergraduate degree was in a broader field such as maths or physics, you can specialise in astrophysics at postgraduate level.

You’ll need strong technical knowledge in the field, but teamwork, collaboration, and research skills are also important. Astrophysicists work in international teams, and with fellow academics, on research papers.

Careers in astrophysics

As an astrophysicist, you can develop your career in various sectors. These include academia, research institutions, government agencies, and private industries. You might contribute to our understanding of the Universe, develop new technologies, and even play a role in space exploration.

Career paths in astrophysics can lead to roles such as research scientist, professor, data analyst, and aerospace engineer. Additionally, astrophysicists often collaborate with experts from diverse fields. They use interdisciplinary approaches to solve complex problems.

In most universities you study astrophysics modules alongside a general physics or mathematics degree. This gives you an excellent grounding if you want to change direction to a different area such as nuclear physics.

The skills you learn, such as generic problem solving and mathematical modelling, can open the doors to careers in related fields such as data science and healthcare modelling.

Astrophysics graduates also have successful careers in software development, patents, image analysis, and statistical modelling,

Study astrophysics

At the University of Dundee, we offer opportunities to study astrophysics:

Physics with Astrophysics BSc (Hons)

Mathematics with Astrophysics BSc (Hons)

 

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

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