General Astronomy/What People do in Astronomy

General Astronomy
The Scientific Method What People do in Astronomy Current Unsolved Mysteries

Astronomy like all sciences is a social activity in which people are constantly discussing new ideas, interpreting data, and arguing with each other over what observations mean. Astronomers can broadly be divided into two groups. Observational astronomers specialize in building instruments such as telescopes, and spacecraft, and take raw data and process them into meaningful results. Theoretical astronomers often also known as astrophysicists take the results that observational astronomers provide and attempt to create physical models which explain the data that observers see and provide ideas of the directions that observers should go into. Theoretical astronomers increasingly rely on computer models and often are skilled at programming.

Astronomy is rather unique in that a lot of the data is provided by amateur astronomers. The data needed in some fields such as variable star astronomy or comet discovery can be gathered by instruments well within the budget of an interested hobbyist.

In a grant panel review, shown above, scientists examine and criticize proposals for new research.

Peer reviewEdit

A central part of the scientific process is peer review which occurs at several stages in the process, and creates what H.H. Bauer calls a knowledge filter. In the peer review process, a proposal or a journal article is given to a group of referees who anonymously submit their comments on the proposal. While the referees will sometimes communicate with each other, they are not intended to reach a consensus on the quality of work. In addition, the referees usually do not have the final authority to decide on the fate of a proposal, but instead given their opinions to an editor or project director who does have the final authority and on occasion overrides the opinions of the referees.

The opinions of the referees are usually made available to the submitter, and often contain suggestions for improvement to the submitter. This is considered crucial for the scientific process as it allows the submitter to receive feedback on his or her proposal and improve it. In some cases, the submitter is encouraged to resubmit their proposal after making changes, and this often develops into an anonymous communication between the referees and the submitter.

Getting what you needEdit

A lot of the work in astronomy involves getting access to resources, which include:

  • money
  • for observers, telescope and equipment time
  • for theorists, computer time

In order to get these resources, astronomers typically write grant proposals which outline the amount of money, telescope, and computer time needed.

Grant proposals typically undergo peer review by the granting agency which includes feedback on how well it fits the priorities of the funding agency, how likely the committees think it is to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and how essential the resource being allocated is to the researcher. Typically, a set portion of telescope or supercomputer time will be made available to the institution that hosts or funds the resource, giving scientists affiliated with that institution priority use over that resource. The remaining time is then made open for research proposals from researchers from other institutions. In the case of ground based telescope time, the most precious and highly sought after time is dark time during which the moon is new and the dimmest objects can be seen.

In some cases, such as building a new telescope, supercomputer center, or funding a new spacecraft, astronomers must lobby funders such as charitable foundations and legislators for money to finance a certain activity. The lobbying for research facilities can be extremely intense as having a facility sited at your institution gives your institution priority access to the facility, as well as prestige, and makes your institution a destination for researchers.

The life of an observational astronomerEdit

Typically, in an observing run, you wake up at about 3 p.m. During the day the technicians will have installed the instruments that you need for a nights observing run. You go to the telescope at 3 p.m., check to see that everything is installed correctly, since you don't want to wake someone up at 3 a.m. if something breaks, you then spend the next two hours before sunset taking some calibration shots.

After the sun starts setting, your first goal is to find the object that you are trying to photograph. You can punch in the coordinates into the computer, but that will only point the telescope in the general area of the sky that you are interested in. The next thing that you have to do is to take out your star atlas, and look for a pattern of stars that is close to the thing that you are looking for. This is a lot like driving in a strange city when you are looking at the monitor and then trying to match the patterns you see with the patterns on the chart.

So you've now found the object you are looking for. In between these measurements, you take some snapshots of a calibration device. If you are looking at spectra, you take picture of a fluorescent lamp that has lines in certain known positions. If you are measuring brightness, then you need to take some pictures of a star whose brightness is known.

So after a night of all of this, you now have some data on hard disk, and you go to sleep. The next few weeks is where the hard part comes in. You see you have a lot of raw data, but it's not very useful to anyone. The problem is that none of the data has been calibrated. So you spend the next few weeks taking the data, subtracting the black levels, correcting the white levels, stretching and shrinking the picture so that you know what the frequencies of your spectra are. You might also be spending your time doing things like trying to correct for the effects of dust in the galaxy. Through it all, you are probably using an astronomy package called IRAF, which like all big software packages has its cute bugs and idiosyncrasies. At the end of all of this you have a paper, and are ready to publish.

Observational astronomers are often at the mercy of things that are outside of their control. Weeks if not months of effort at setting up an observing run can be destroyed if it happens to be cloudy or raining on the night of the run.

The life of a theoristEdit

Unlike observers, theorists are creatures of the day. The typical theorist spends their days reading papers trying to understand how to model a particular type of phenomenon. Once they have a model, the goal then is to try to get testable predictions from that model, and this often means programming a computer to calculate the consequences of that model. There are occasional flashes of inspiration, but most of the time is spent very slowly and methodically trying to understand the consequences of a model, and to slowly and methodically program the model into a computer and systematically remove the bugs from the model.

There are also a lot of social interactions as theorists argue and debate what a particular observation means, and as theorists and observationalists share ideas about the latest data.

Letting people know about your researchEdit

There are a number of channels through which scientific results are made known. The primary means that astronomers use to make others aware of current research are through preprints which are papers uploaded through web servers such as the Los Alamos Preprint Server at or through conference proceedings in which scientists announce their results either through lectures or poster papers. Astronomers are also constantly travelling between departments to give talks on their research at seminars, astronomy lunches, and journal clubs.

Although it has been supplemented by preprints, peer reviewed publication in the primary literature is still considered an essential part of publicizing research. This literature consists of articles in journal such as Astrophysical Journal or Astronomy and Astrophysics. Because of the length of time, typically several months, necessary to go through a peer review, research results are typically shared with the community through preprints before peer review is complete. Nevertheless, astronomers still generally submit their papers to peer review even after the results have been released to the research community, because the interaction between anonymous referees and the paper submitter improves the quality of the work and insures the community that the paper does not have any obvious errors.

Once an astronomy paper is available for publication, it can be accessed through the Astrophysics Data System at Increasingly, raw data from sky surveys is being made available on the web.

One shortcoming of the primary literature is that it reports on individual research results without providing context. As such it is difficult for someone who is not actively involved in research in a particular area to understand the relevance of the work. To deal with this problem, primary literature is summarized and combined into the secondary literature, where it will be read by a broader audience of scientists. The secondary literature is a synthesis of the results of recent research in a field. The body of secondary literature includes periodic reviews of progress, such as the Annual Review of Astronomy & Astrophysics, professional books, and other research summaries.

How to be an astronomerEdit

Most astronomers major in either physics or astronomy as an undergraduate and then go to graduate school where they work on the Ph.D. under the supervision of a dissertation advisor. The main challenges in becoming an astronomer are to master the language of mathematics and physics, and to gain experience in working through the scientific process.

After graduate school, an astronomer typically works as a post-doctoral fellow before getting a job either as a professor at a university or a researcher at a laboratory. Because of the large number of graduates gaining Ph.D.'s, people with astronomy degrees are increasingly found outside academia. They work in science related fields, as computer programmers for software companies and even on Wall Street.

Astronomy also is open for amateur astronomers. Most of the data for variable stars is accessible via a telescope which is affordable by hobbyists, and amateurs provide important observational data.


[2] There are some exceptions to the practice of releasing research results before peer review is complete, and this involves a trade-off between speed and completeness.

When a result is believed likely to be controversial (such as the possible discovery of microfossils on Mars), the researchers may choose to keep the finding secret until peer review is complete so that the result will likely withstand challenges after it is released. Another case where results are kept until peer review is complete involves releasing large datasets such as sky surveys. In this case, the delay introduced by peer review is small in comparison to the benefits of having a through review before announcing the results.

Discussion questionsEdit

1) Visit either the Los Alamos preprint site or the Astrophysics Data Service and find a paper. How is the paper structured and what concepts in this text book do you find in the papers?

2) Look at the schedule of several university astronomy departments on the web. What is being discussed? How are different astronomy departments different from each other and how are they the same?

General Astronomy
The Scientific Method What People do in Astronomy Current Unsolved Mysteries