What's the Difference Between an Astronomer and an Astrophysicist?

Have you ever wondered what the difference was between an astronomer and an astrophysicist? You're not alone. I get this question all the time and I'll have the answer in this astronomy vlog post.

2175 Views | Published on 2nd May, 2018

Hello everyone and it’s time for another Deep Astronomy Vlog post. These little video snippets are designed to offer you some career advice if you’re a young person just starting out and wondering what a career in astronomy is like.

I base my advice on the 35 years or so experience I’ve had working in the field of astronomy. I’ve been at this since I was in high school and every once in a while, I like to take out some time to share my experience with you.

One question I get a lot is, “What’s the difference between an astronomer and an astrophysicist?”

Well the short answer is that there isn’t one. There. All done. Now all you people on YouTube who’s time is SOOOOO valuable can go now. Thanks for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!

Okay, are all the short-attention span people gone? Now that all the social media viewers who’s attention span won’t allow them to watch anything longer than a minute are gone, I can elaborate.

There is absolutely no difference between someone who is working as an astronomer and one working as an astrophysicist. The job is the same, what’s different are the people who use the titles.

Let’s face it, astrophysicist sounds way cooler than astronomer and saying you are one to people who aren’t in the field makes you sound very impressive.

The thing is, studying astrophysics isn’t all that hard compared to many of the other physical sciences. For example, the curriculum for getting a PhD in physics, actual hard physics, is more rigorous than that for astrophysics.

At the University of Colorado for example, where I went, graduate students in the astronomy department didn’t have to take Jackson’ E&M, a course notoriously difficult and considered by many a ‘weed-out’ course.

And there were many courses like that that physics graduate students had to take but the astrophysics students did not.

Even in undergraduate studies, I got my physics degree at a time when CU did not offer an undergraduate astronomy degree. It was made available in my senior year and when I looked at the courses astronomy students had to take versus the ones I took going through the physics program, I was glad I went through the physics program. It was more rigorous and I feel like it better prepared me to do astronomy better in my career.

My opinion is that a physics degree is better than an astrophysics one. When I say it’s less rigorous, I’m talking about the course work one has to take to get the degree. I feel like the physics degree was more valuable.

So back to our question: what is the difference between an astronomer and an astrophysicist. My experience working with the hundreds of astronomers I’ve met over the decades is one of personality.

Look at all the people who insist - and by insist I mean they get upset or correct you if you call them anything else - who insist on calling them as astrophysicist. There’s a pattern there: usually they are involved with the general public and are building a brand for themselves. I’m not going to name any names, but you can easily see who I’m talking about in this magical scicomm age where the echo chamber is deafening with everyone teaching astronomy.

Try an experiment and call them an astronomer and watch their reaction. I do it sometimes just to irritate them.

Then there are those whom you won’t really hear about because they are the ones actually doing the work in astronomy. Making the discoveries, designing the observatories, building the cameras, processing the data and doing the math for the modelling.

These guys could care less what you call them and unfortunately you won’t really see them unless you get a job yourself in the field.

Try to be one of those guys when you get a job. You’ll be glad you did.

Actually I take that back. If you watch our weekly hangouts on Thursdays, then you will meet some of the smartest guys in the room. One of the reasons we do those hangouts is so you’ll see what the work of astronomy is like and meet some of the most awesome people working in the field today.

So, if you want to meet the real rock stars of astronomy, watch our hangouts on Thursdays at 3pm ET.

I guess I’d better qualify this opinion with the statement that of course not EVERYONE who claims to be an astrophysicist is an insecure attention-grabber, but I’m sorry but in my experience, most of them are.

I had one guy get downright indignant when I introduced him as an astronomer. He corrected me and was huffy for the rest of the presentation. Points if you can figure out who it was.

So don’t get caught up in the whole astronomer/astrophysicist thing. If you’re good at your job, do good science, write papers people cite, build telescopes that work and people want to use, or cameras that show things no one has ever seen before, people can call you an astrologist and it wouldn’t matter.

Ok, I take that back, I think most astronomers would correct you on that one. My point is, when your work speaks for itself you are the coolest guy in the room no matter what they call you.

Well that’s it for this vlog post Space Fans, thanks to all of you for watching. I’ve got two more SFN episodes in the hopper and getting ready to be posted soon, I also have a new space video on the way in about a week or so.

If you have a question you’d like to pose about becoming an astronomer for a future vlog post, please leave it in the comments below. I check the comments across all videos everyday.

Also, let me know what you think about this whole astronomer/astrophysicist thing. Is it just an ego thing like I’ve alluded to or is there more to it for you? Let me know.

Thanks for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!

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