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Astronomer

Astronomer

An astronomer is an individual who studies the universe primarily using telescopes. Astronomers rely on both observations of celestial objects, including planets, stars, and galaxies, and physical theories to better understand how these objects formed and work. Although professional astronomers conduct most astronomy research today, amateur sky watchers continue to play a key role.

Astronomy has been practiced since the beginning of recorded history. Many ancient civilizations employed people with some knowledge of the night sky and the motions of the Sun and Moon, although in many cases the identities of these ancient astronomers have long since been lost. At that time the work of astronomers had both practical importance, in the form of keeping track of days, seasons, and years, as well as religious implications. Astronomers did not emerge as true scientists until the Renaissance, when new observations and theories by astronomers such as Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) of Poland and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) of Italy challenged the beliefs of the church. Since then astronomers have gradually emerged as scientists in the same class as physicists and chemists, employed primarily by universities and government research institutions.

Two Types of Astronomers

In the early twenty-first century, astronomers can be grouped into two different types, observational and theoretical. Observational astronomers use telescopes, on Earth and in space, to study objects ranging from planets and moons to distant galaxies. They analyze images, spectra, and other data in an effort to gain new knowledge about the objects under examination. Theoretical astronomers, on the other hand, may never venture near a telescope. They work with computers, or even just pencil and paper, to develop models and theories to explain astronomical phenomena. In many respects observational astronomers are closer to the classical image of an astronomer, whereas theoretical astronomers are more strongly rooted in the worlds of physics and mathematics. The two groups do work closely together: Observational astronomers provide data to help theoretical astronomers develop and refine models, and in turn seek observational evidence for the theoreticians' work.

The Difference Between Astronomy and Astrology

Astronomers are often confused with astrologers, although the two are very different. Astrologers attempt to divine information about the future through the locations of the Sun and planets in the sky. Astrology is opposed by nearly all astronomers, who not only reject the notion that the positions of celestial objects govern the future but also note that many of the data and definitions used by astrologers are inaccurate. Astronomy and astrology, however, were once more closely tied together: In medieval times, many astronomers relied on astrology as a primary means of making a living.

Not all astronomers are paid to do their work. There are a large number of amateur astronomers who pursue astronomy as a hobby rather than as a full-time job. They play a useful role in astronomical research, because they can observe the full sky far better than professional astronomers, who focus on small regions of the sky at a particular time. Amateur astronomers have made many asteroid, comet, and supernova discoveries. Automated sky surveys by professional astronomers, though, have began to make more of the discoveries that were once made almost exclusively by amateur astronomers.

see also Astronomy, History of (volume 2); Astronomy, Kinds of (volume 2); Careers in Astronomy (volume 2).

Jeff Foust

Bibliography

Goldsmith, Donald. The Astronomers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Internet Resources

A New Universe to Explore: Careers in Astronomy. American Astronomical Society. <http://www.aas.org/~education/career.html>. Odenwald, Sten. "Ask an Astronomer." <http://itss.raytheon.com/cafe/qadir/qanda.html>.

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Astronomer

Astronomer


An astronomer is a person who studies everything above Earth's atmosphere. The field of astronomy is so broad that no one person can hope to be fluent in all aspects. Most astronomers specialize in one of several branches of astronomy. Astrophysicists study the origin and evolution of stars. Planetary geologists study the formation of planets. Cosmologists study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.

Astronomers rarely have the opportunity to study astronomical objects directly. They must depend on various forms of electromagnetic radiation received from distant objects. However, much information can be extracted from the radiation through careful analysis: chemical composition, temperature, motion through space, rotation speed, magnetic field strength, and other physical features.

In order to measure how bright an object in space is or measure its actual size, the distance to the object must be determined accurately. For example, a star could be bright because it is intrinsically a bright star, or it could be bright because it is very close. However, distance is one of the most difficult things to measure. To determine distances in space, astronomers depend on triangles.

Astronomers also use triangles to determine the distance to nearby stars. As Earth goes around the Sun, nearby stars shift their angular position by a small amount against the background of more distant stars. This angle, called a "parallax," can be measured accurately by astronomers. It is the vertex angle of a long isosceles triangle whose base is the diameter of Earth's orbit. Thus, using simple trigonometry, astronomers can determine the height of the triangle and thus the distance to the star.

Astronomers typically work at universities that own and operate major telescopes. To work in astronomy at this level, a doctorate is required along with several years of post-doctorate work. Astronomers in training take many courses in physics, engineering, computer science, and basic astronomy. Since working in astronomy requires an understanding of both quantum mechanics and general relativity, the mathematics requirements are difficult. Astronomers take many courses in advanced mathematics.

There are very few jobs for astronomers. Even jobs as astronomical technicians are hard to get and are usually reserved for advanced graduate students in the field. However, astronomy is one of the very few scientific disciplines where amateurs can make a significant contribution. Astronomers observe double stars , variable stars , search for asteroids , and search for comets. There are official channels where the information collected by amateurs can be transferred to scientists.

see also Cosmos; Solar System Geometry, History of; Solar System Geometry, Modern Under- standings of; Telescope; Universe, Geometry of.

Elliot Richmond

Bibliography

Chaisson, Eric, and Steve McMillan. Astronomy Today, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.


DO ASTRONOMERS STILL PEER THROUGH A TELESCOPE?

It is no longer necessary to stay up all night to be an astronomer. Astronomers rarely "look through" a telescope. Many large telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, can be operated by remote control. Most images are captured by light-sensitive solid state devices attached to computers.


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