What's it like to study... Astronomy

Samuel Nathan Richards studied a BSc in Astronomy at the University of Hertfordshire

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The Independent Online

Why would anyone study Astronomy? I think the great, late Carl Sagan said it perfectly, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." It is in this that I cannot remember a time that I looked up at the night sky and was not taken aback by the sheer wonder of the cosmos.

From a young age, the unknown beckoned me, and it would be common to catch me watching television repeats of “How Stuff Works” in my spare time. As I grew older and went through the academic ranks before university, I discovered that at each step the teacher would question that which had been previously taught and lead onto revealing that actually we do not have it all figured out. At this point, the concept of “Dark Matter & Energy” had recently been widely accepted, which really hooked me into the study of Astronomy. This particular concept unforgivingly exposed just how little we understood about the contents of the cosmos.

After taking three years as a form of sabbatical prior to going to University, I decided to pursue this curiosity and enrolled in the Astrophysics undergraduate degree programme at the University of Hertfordshire. Here I found the greatest gift from an academic institution; opportunity. Having lecturers that were full-time researchers and at the top of their respective fields enabled the class to be exposed to the latest Astronomy and have a chance to take on research projects. Everything from laboratory physics to observational astronomy at Bayfordbury Observatory, continued my passion and lead to even greater opportunities - in particular, a research year abroad within the Astrophotonics department at the University of Sydney, Australia.

During this year abroad, I had the opportunity to work on a ground-breaking new telescope instrument called “SAMI”, for the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope. This instrument will greatly aid the pursuit in understanding the properties of galaxies, and is the main focus of my research as I have now graduated and returned to the University of Sydney & Australian Astronomical Observatory. With this instrument and another that I built for Bayfordbury Observatory (BASIS), I have had the opportunity to present at conferences around the world, and build international collaborations for the future. This aspect of travelling definitely appeals to me as a perk of the job, especially when some of the world leading telescopes are in places such as Hawaii, Chile, La Palma and Antarctica!

Within the degree programme, you learn all different aspects of astronomy, from understanding why stars twinkle and why that is really annoying for astronomers, to racking your head around the hardest concepts of an expanding universe. The most valuable and transferable skill learnt during such a degree is that of problem solving. Problems exist in all aspects of life where astronomers, among physicists, are of the best in finding solutions. This can result in many of those who undertake such a degree not continuing an Astronomy career, but rather redirecting those acquired skills in other disciplines, e.g. finance, making physicists one of the most sought after group of people.

All of this does not come easy though. Many a time do you find yourself scribbling equations across whiteboards in the middle of the night - unintentionally prompting other students to heckle quotes from the popular show, “The Big Bang Theory” - but popping out with the correct answer after hours of equations is one of the most rewarding experiences. I guess you might just have to trust me on that one. It may seem to be a very difficult degree to undertake, but I would encourage anyone thinking about embarking upon on this subject to not shy away as there is plenty of help at hand, from willing lecturers/researchers to your own peers who are equally at lost to some of the most complex concepts known to mankind.

I intend to stay true to the path of the unknown in the pursuit of a career in Astrophysics, mainly in the development of new observational instruments and deployment of such instruments at the best-suited locations, primarily the high Antarctica plateau. I will never forget the Apollo 8 image of the Earthrise and hope one day I will be honoured with witnessing the event with my very own eyes.

If I am to have any final words it would be that the Space Race left a wake of endeavour, premised on the notion of not doing these things because they are easy, but because they are hard (JFK). Take up the pioneer’s call, and enjoy the life of excitement and discovery as we truly start to probe the final frontier.