There's been a fair bit of interest, per posts in the various Nature of Astrophysics threads I've started in this section, in aspects of how "human nature impinges upon science
" (to use tayga's words
), in ways that are outside the scope of the Nature of astrophysics (II) - science and scientists thread
, so I thought I'd write this thread now (I had intended to do it later).
The journey one takes in life to get to the point where you might have an opportunity to make astronomical observations, do physics experiments, or develop some hypotheses, models, or theories may be relatively easy, or agonisingly difficult, or anything in between. Indeed, for many people such a journey is essentially impossible (a woman in an arranged marriage to a husband who hates science, back in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, say). However, as there's little to distinguish astronomy, or even physics, with respect to such journeys, from a huge range of choices and opportunities a person might wish to make, I don't want to spend any more time on it (in this thread at least).
Let's distinguish between being paid to do astronomy or physics and doing it on your own, as an independent researcher.
How do you get to be a professional astronomer? or physicist? Well, outside of applied physics - in industry say, or commerce, or the military - most jobs are in universities and government agencies, such as the ESA
. To get any of those jobs today you need a PhD, and to get a PhD you need to work incredibly hard, and be pretty good at math (you'd likely need to be in the top 10 in your high school math class); it would help a great deal if you were deeply interested in the subject. You may, or may not, be able to work on areas in astronomy you particularly like; however, if you want something EU-like, it's probably best you choose space science or plasma physics (while there are plenty of universities whose astrophysics research includes the application of plasma physics to astronomical objects and phenomena, there's little in space science that doesn't involve application of plasma physics!).
Even with your PhD, it may take a decade before you land a secure job, and in that time you will likely have only limited choice as to what you get to work on (nothing to do with attitudes towards EU-like ideas!). In that time you will learn to write proposals, mostly under the guidance of someone who's been doing proposal writing for decades. If you want to use one of the leading facilities - the Hubble say - you'd better find a team to join (which may have members all over the world), because the competition for time on it is really fierce.
If you've got this far, and have some observations you're happy with (or results of some physics experiments), you should have no difficulty getting them published; in fact, the sooner you do publish them, the better, because it's nearly certain that someone, somewhere else in the world, is working on something similar ...
On the theory side, which includes a lot of model development too, it can be easier, if only because the facilities you most likely need aren't much more than a good PC, time to think, and colleagues to bounce things off; however, as with the observer and experimenter, you may not get much choice as to what to work on ...
Turning to independent research.
For astronomical observations, it's impossible, do-able, and extremely easy! If you want to observe some particular astronomical object, or location in the sky, with Fermi
, say, or XMM-Newton
, then you are totally out of luck (well, you could
try writing a proposal, but I think you'd have more luck going to university and getting your PhD). For observations in the optical, you could build/buy your own telescope plus camera (or whatever), or you could rent one of the several telescopes 'for hire', over the internet (if you don't know of any, say so and I'll include some links in my response). The extremely easy option involves little more than getting a broadband internet connection, downloading some software, and learning about the cornucopia of high quality astronomical observations that are there, for free.
For physics experiments, basically forget about it (some exceptions of course), except for downloading data and analysing it yourself.
Thinking, and working on theories and models, is pretty easy, in terms of any barriers or resources you'd need.
Publishing is the hard part. If you want to get your ideas or observational/experimental results into a journal such as MNRAS
or Physical Review Letters
, you would have to do a lot of work; for example, you need to find out what format they require draft papers to be in (this has both formal and informal dimensions), and then write your draft accordingly (this is, for an independent researcher, likely to far harder than you might imagine). Getting published in a lesser-known journal would be easier (though you still have to conform to their requirements), and there are now some online journals which make it very easy for independent researchers. And if all else fails, you can always set up your own website, and publish what you wish, in whatever form you wish (well, you do need to be careful about things like libel and copyright of course)
What do you think? How does what I have written compare with your own, personal, experience?