QUESTION #446

# How much math is needed to become an Astronomer? What kinds of math must you know?

Asked by: Josh Jansen

A broad understanding of mathematics is required to perform the calculations necessary for data analysis and to understand astro mechanics, theory, etc. At the University of Arizona it is required for an undergraduate to pass Calculus (2 semesters), Vector Calculus, and Ordinary Differential Equations. All of these courses require strong algebra and trigonometry skills.

Of course you do not need a college degree in Astrophysics or Astronomy to look at the stars. Until that big college graduation day I recommend going with a group of friends to a large clearing and letting your imagination do the rest.

Starizona is a great place to find books and equipment for getting you started in your amateur astronomer career.
Answered by: Philip McCulloch, Optical Sciences Undergrad, UofA, Tucson

You would need to be good in Geometry and Trigonometry which will come in handy when determining the position of the stars and studying 'let's say Parsecs'. I would also say that all forms of Algebra would be helpful due to the fact that you will have to take other entry classes before you will ever get your degree in Astronomy and you will need to be fluent in algebra so you won't fall behind.
Answered by: Thomas Craig, Ph.D., Professor at Erskine College

Alas that is one of the main questions asked by budding astronomers. Ironically, before you get to studying astronomy, a lot has to be learned in both physics and math. Typically this is what is studied in an undergraduate program, and it is not til graduate school that you actually get to the astronomy classes. Usually enough physics is taken equivalent to a physics degree or close to it (including advanced classes like Modern Physics, Quant.Mechanics, Elect.& Magnitism,etc.) Usually AT LEAST enough math for a minor in math, if not more. This usually includes 2-3 semesters of calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, advanced calculus, etc. And depending on the college, they may have one or two astronomy classes available such as intro. to astronomy and observational astronomy.

I'm sure by now some reading this are thinking maybe astronomy isn't for me after all. Don't give up the idea just yet. It's not as hard as it sounds. First I'd recommend whatever you do, take an intro. to astronomy class. If one is not offered at your college, there are many available to take thru distance education or online. See how you do and if you like it, before committing to a lot of physics and math classes.

If you want to take the physics and math, start out slow, don't try to jump to too advanced a level you aren't ready for because it'll be a waste of your time and you will just get frustrated. Take you time, relax, if it means an extra semester or so, to do well in your classes and be prepared, it is worth it. You can't just slide by and expect to do well. And you are better of getting it right the first time around (Why not do as well as you can the first time in class since you are there anyway?)

Think it's too late to start a career in astronomy? Think again. If you've already started a degree, and say have only two years to graduate. One you can switch you degree, spend the extra time to get in the classes (or just get a second degree), or you can still try to take what physics and math you can fit in before you graduate. For case two, some graduate schools will work with undergraduates by letting them take any necessary math or physics classes they need before starting their graduate classes.

One of the best things you can do is look at colleges (both undergrad and graduate) early. See what they require, what kind of classes they offer, do they have specializations, what labs or equipment is available for students, etc. Email, phone, or write to the departments for information and questions, they are often very glad to help you with any questions you may have.

And once you get there, be prepared to study, get to know your professors and fellow students, utilize whatever tools available (study centers, group study, buy extra books, look at webster) to help you not only get the grade, but get the tools you need to study astronomy and learn to truly understand and appreciate it.
Answered by: Jennifer Earles, Biophysics Student, Indiana