What Does An Astrophysicist Do?
An astrophysicist is a person who studies the physical characteristics of the universe. This includes studying physical objects in the universe and how those objects interact with each other.
The title astrophysicist sounds complicated, however it is just a combination of astronomy and physics, which are defined as:
- astronomy – the science of the material universe beyond earth’s atmosphere
- physics – the science of matter, energy, motion and force
Many astrophysicists choose to work with a very narrow focus within their field. Some of them can work for years, or even decades, on the same long term project. These astrophysicists become experts in their specific part of the field of astrophysics. Others work in a broader position within the field, researching much broader topics, and focusing on the big picture of the universe.
Astrophysicists study the physical properties and interactions of objects in the sky, including:
- black holes
- dark matter
- neutron stars
- super clusters
- stellar evolution
Astrophysicists use both land based and space based telescopes to study objects in the universe. Before they use a telescope, they decide what they want to learn, test, or figure out. Then they collect specific data from their observations. They also use any related information that is gathered by satellites.
Once they have data to work with, they must analyze it and try to understand what it means. Sometimes they run experiments to test different ideas. Often they combine their new data with information that other scientists have collected over time. They compare the information to make sure it matches up and makes sense.
When it is time to analyze the collected data, and make sense of what has been found, astrophysicists use complex computer programs to help organize the information in a meaningful way. They use these programs to run tests and make comparisons. They also use computers to develop models that are then used to test new ideas.
The field of astrophysics includes the studies of many different, very complex subject areas, including, but not limited to:
- quantum physics
- quantum mechanics
- statistical mechanics
- molecular physics
There are two main types of work that astrophysicists do, theoretical and observational.
Theoretical work includes developing, building, and using models and simulations to test, and then explain, theories about the astrophysical properties of our universe. This means it is the type of astrophysics that focuses on the unknown.
Observational work includes analyzing data, and completing experiments to understand the physical processes within our universe. This type of astrophysics focuses on known concepts that can be studied, measured, and tested.
Astrophysicists must also be prepared to write up their research and findings in a way that makes sense to other scientists as well as the public. They present this information to other scientists at seminars, conferences, lectures or in papers for scientific journals. They share with other scientists in hopes of combining information and ideas, and making new discoveries. Sometimes they use the information they have found to complete grant proposals and raise money for further research.
They also spend time learning from other scientists. They must always work to stay aware of any new developments in their field, including new information that has been discovered and new technology that has been invented. They must be able to include the new information in their own studies, as well as use the new, upgraded technology.
Astrophysicists use their knowledge and findings to help manufacturing companies plan, develop and build new scientific devices and research equipment. They use special equipment and instruments for different projects, depending on what they are studying. Sometimes the information they have just discovered is what leads them to invent the next tool they need.
Many astrophysicists also work as university professors. They develop and teach courses, lectures, and lab classes about astronomy, physics, and astrophysics. In addition, astrophysicists that work as professors can be responsible for supervising research students who are studying astronomy, physics or astrophysics.
Some astrophysicists also participate in educational outreach. They develop educational programs that they then share with the public during community science events, or take to schools to share with students.
A successful astrophysicist must have an excellent ability to use higher level mathematics, including calculus, algebra and geometry, to perform complex calculations. They must have great analytical skills in order to make sense of the data that is collected.
They must also be very observant and detail oriented, and able to follow very complicated scientific procedures to carry out experiments. Astrophysicists must be creative problem solvers who are able to use logic, reasoning, and critical thinking skills to approach and solve difficult problems. Being an astrophysicist requires outstanding written and verbal communication skills since they must work together with other scientists and be able to share their scientific findings with others.