Institute of Astronomy


Ask an Astronomer at the IoA

Ever had a question about astronomy you've want answered? Have a look through the previous questions which we've been asked and if you can't find find your answer, ask us!

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Choice of degree to become an astronomer

Published on 26/01/2013 

I'm currently a student who is majoring in chemistry. I love chemistry, but as of last year I developed a huge interests in astronomy. I read tons of books and that just fueled my interest even more. I go to a college that doesn't offer astronomy as a major, so I was wondering would it be best to major in physics and take some astronomy classes because my goal in life is hopefully to become a astronomer or a planetary scientist?

It is always good to hear from those interested in astronomy. In general, I believe that specialising in physics is a great background for studying astronomy. Many researchers here did their undergraduate degrees in physics, and this is a good background. If you are serious about astronomy you should consider picking up physics.

Chemistry would also be useful for many areas of astronomy, in particular looking at planetary atmospheres, so your background there may be an advantage. There are some planetary scientists who studied chemistry for their PhD and only migrated across later in their research career.

If you are considering a career in astronomy you shall really need a PhD. It would therefore be best to contact institutions you would be interested in attending to find out their requirements. A degree in applied mathematics is often a valid option too.

How can gravity act through empty space?

Published on 26/01/2013 

How can empty space, which has no mass and is therefore not matter, curve? And how can it have an affect on the path of objects? In other words, how can empty space – which is nothing – actually do something (like curve) and how can nothing affect something?

That is an excellent question, and one that is difficult to explain. In general relativity, we talk about gravity being the effect of the curvature of spacetime. It can be difficult to imagine what this really means. There are a number of examples which are commonly used to illustrate a curved space, for example the surface of a sphere. However, when thinking about the surface of a sphere, you normally have the sphere underneath to give it substance. You don't actually need this: the surface can be thought of as a separate entity that can exist whether or not there is a sphere.

When we talk about the curvature of spacetime, what we are really describing are the properties of the metric. This is the quantity that tells us the distance between points. You can define the distance between points whether or not there is anything in between. Try to imagine two objects in a vacuum, even though there is nothing filling the gap between them, the gap could be 5 metres or 5 light-years, and that could be definitely measured. The metric exists whether or not the space is empty. In general relativity we treat the metric as a field, a physical quantity that varies with position. This isn't matter, but it is a something that does exist in a vacuum, and can be thought of as a representation of the gravitational field. You should think of spacetime (the structure of which is given by the metric), rather than a vacuum, as being curved.

Finally, how does the curvature effect matter? Matter always wants to travel in a straight line: what we mean by straight though, isn't what you might usually think of. In this case, we mean the shortest line that joins two points. For a flat space that is straight as you'd normally imagine, but try it on the surface of a sphere and you will get something that looks curved. We call these shortest paths geodesics. It takes a force to push an object off its geodesics, so when travelling unaffected through a vacuum, an object will continue happily along its geodesic. That this might look curved is just an effect of the metric, but the object would have no way of knowing without interacting with something.

I hope that goes some way towards helping you understand. Unfortunately this is a difficult subject. You can test that action at a distance works just by dropping something: it'll travel towards the Earth, even though there is nothing connecting them.

What to read on stellar theory?

Published on 26/01/2013 

I am a current A2 Physics student and part of my course is a research project on a topic of our choice. Stars have always been interesting to me. To me, understanding how stars evolve and produce the elements that make up the world we see before us is fascinating. Could you recommend any scientific papers, journals or books?

Stars are indeed fascinating. There are many interesting areas of physics involved in understanding stellar evolution, from fluid mechanics to atomic physics. Understanding nucleosynthesis is not only important for understanding where the elements come from, but also how stars generate their energy.

You can find a lot of information online on this subject. Wikipedia is a good place to start (although you should know to be careful, as it's not a perfect source). I would also recommend this article by John Bahcall:

Bahcall worked a lot on stellar models, in particular looking at the solar neutrino problem (which may be an interesting aside for you).

In terms of journal papers, it is difficult to make recommendations as (i) they are likely mostly too advanced and (ii) you will usually require a subscription to read them. Many more recent articles are available for free via arXiv, however most of the key research on nucleosynthesis was done in the early 20th century before the arXiv existed. However, there are two Nobel lectures (that would later be published as scientific reviews) that you should be able to read:

This is by Hans Bethe, who was very smart. He invented quantum electrodynamics on a the train home from a conference. He was actually a theoretical particle physicist, and only did a little work on stars.

This is by Willy Fowler, who did spend much of his career on nuclear reactions.

Textbooks are similarly difficult to recommend, as they are expensive. Really you need a nice library to purchase things for you. It might be best to see if you can find any books on stellar evolution locally and work with what you have. If you are looking for concrete recommendations, then I would say Stellar Structure and Evolution by Kippenhahn & Weigert is a good choice. Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis by Clayton would be more detailed, but is also a little more old fashioned, and perhaps not as readable.

How gravity affects different types of matter

Published on 26/01/2013 

The basic elements of the Earth are not the same as those in the Universe, so how can the Universe have the same gravity?

It was one of Newton's great ideas that the force that makes apples fall from trees is the same as that which causes the motion of the planets. This was quite revolutionary at the time. We believe that gravity is universal, and behaves the same everywhere. We've advanced in our understanding since Newton's time, but a basic principle is that all mass (or energy, as the two are equivalent) interacts gravitationally in the same way regardless of composition.

You are quite correct that the Universe does not share the same composition as the Earth. The most common element in the Universe is hydrogen, at about 74%. This is quite rare in the Earth (about 0.03%), although it is quite common at the surface, being a constituent of water (you are about 10% hydrogen). The second most common element in the Universe is helium, at about 24%. This is exceedingly rare on Earth, though we have managed to find enough to fill the occasional balloon (we're actually running out quite rapidly). The Earth is mostly iron (32%), oxygen (30%) and silicon (15%). However, what type of matter an object is does not influence gravity, the only thing that is important is the mass. The force on a 1 kg mass is the same whatever it is made of, and careful experimentation has verified that.

Rogue Planets

Published on 22/01/2013 

I understand that astronomers believe so-called rogue planets were likely ejected from their solar systems early in their planetary histories, but it's never clear what event(s) could trigger such a thing. My question: What kind of a catastrophic event in our solar system could cause the Earth to become a rogue planet today?  It's ok to be speculative. I'd love to know. Thank you.

Planetary systems become unstable when the orbits of two planets cross.  By this I don't mean that the planets collide, rather, that their crossing orbits cause them to have a close gravitational encounter.  The close gravitational encounter can transfer a tremendous amount of orbital energy from one planet to the other, potentially shooting it out of the planetary system.
Surprisingly, our own system is barely stable!  A close encounter between the asteroids Vesta and Ceres in about 60 million years ago makes it very difficult to trace Solar system dynamics before the encounter ( and also limits our ability to forward-predict Solar System dynamics on timescales longer than about 10 million years.  For more information about the stability of the Solar system, see this Wikipedia article and its sources:
In summary, to make the Earth a "rogue planet," the Solar system would have to evolve such that another large body (a large asteroid, or Venus or Mars, or eventually Jupiter) crossed orbits with the Earth.  The asteroids and Mars probably don't have enough energy to eject Earth.  A more massive planet like Jupiter would be more effective at ejecting Earth, but Jupiter is quite far away and is less likely to cross orbits with Earth.  But the Solar system is definitely stable for the durations of our lives, and this kind of ejection couldn't happen for at least a few tens of millions of years, if not billions.