Astronomy and Physics: A Unified Journey

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Astronomy and Physics: A Unified Journey


Hannah Jang-Congell, At-Large Member, SPS Executive Council, and Program Scientist, NASA


Hannah Jang-Congell.

When people ask me the difference between being an astronomer and an astrophysicist, I like to say that it's whether you want to talk to the person sitting next to you on a plane. If you tell people you’re an astronomer, they usually get excited and ask lots of questions. If you say you’re an astrophysicist, they tend to say, “Oh,” and end the conversation. If you’ve ever struggled with a tough physics problem set, you can probably relate to this reaction. 

Perhaps it says something about me that I usually call myself an astronomer, even though I swear I’m really an introvert.

As a physics major, I was drawn to astronomy by the number of open questions in the field: How do stars and galaxies form? What is the universe made of? What are planets around other stars like? Because we can never visit these objects due to the vast distances in outer space, we have to study them remotely. We do this by assuming that physics must be the same everywhere across the universe. It’s a fascinating puzzle to tease out the physical nature of planets, stars, and galaxies solely by what we can detect remotely. Quantum mechanics tells us how to interpret lines in the spectra of objects. General relativity tells us about the nature of black holes and gravitational waves. Basic mechanics tells us how we can measure planet masses from the Doppler shifts of stars. 

Astronomy is just one of the many fields that a background in physics opens up for people. Sure, there’s condensed matter physics, biophysics, medical physics, nuclear physics, and other fields with “physics” in their names, but there’s also engineering, information technology, and education, just to mention a few. Even if you don’t end up pursuing a physics- or astronomy-based career, the problem-solving skills you gain from such an education will help you in many other fields. (Learn more about possible careers by visiting the Careers Toolbox at

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Future career prospects aside, there’s fun to be found in physics right now—the simple joy in understanding how the universe works, pride in solving a tricky problem, and the camaraderie of collaborating with your peers. SPS is about all these things, and about building a community to celebrate them. This is why I continue to work with SPS and support its mission, even though I’ve left academia and no longer work directly with undergrads—so that any student with an interest in physics or astronomy, regardless of their background, can feel like they belong and are welcome in the community. 

On a related note, I was excited when SPS amended its bylaws a few years ago to explicitly include astronomy in its description. I don’t feel like I left physics to pursue a career in astronomy, and it's nice to be officially recognized as part of the fold.

As this issue of the SPS Observer was being finalized, a rare astronomical event took place across a wide swath of North America. I hope you could see the total solar eclipse and that it helped you appreciate astronomy and physics even more. I am looking forward to experiencing this amazing event with my family and friends in Rochester, New York. Experiencing one is simply phenomenal and awe inspiring. Maybe this is why people find astronomy so accessible—anyone can look up at the sky and find wonder.


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