A day in the life of an Oxford Astrophysicist
November 27, 2019 1:59 PM   Subscribe

Just what does an Oxford Astrophysicist do? Let's listen to Dr. Becky:
When people find out I’m an astrophysicist - I often get asked: “So, what do you actually do all day?” The easiest way to answer that question is to show you. From data crunching, to seminars, to journal clubs, emails and chatting on the radio; this was my Thursday 14th November 2019.
posted by zengargoyle (14 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
posted by growabrain at 2:20 PM on November 27, 2019

That was way cool. Some of the walking parts were kind of off-putting, like if I had to watch those on a bigger screen and at length, I might get seasick.

I'm off to find more Dr. Becky videos...
posted by dfm500 at 4:23 PM on November 27, 2019

Here's another video from her that gives some background:


Here's her twitter:


"Flight attendant: Is there a doctor on board?

Dad: *nudging me* that could’ve been you

Me: Not now

Dad: Not asking for an astrophysicist to help, are they?

Me: Dad, there's a medical emergency happening

Dad: Go see if asking “have you thought about magnetic fields” helps"

posted by dfm500 at 4:32 PM on November 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Her explanation and news videos are really good. She’s good at explaining stuff so average internet joes like myself can understand.
posted by eagles123 at 4:56 PM on November 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Her advice at 11:00 to learn to code is spot on. New research is providing data in chunks that are well measured in terabytes, and you can't just drop it into Excel any more. Generally, there's a strong division along age lines of which scientists are willing and able to do the programming themselves.

And if the whole tenure-track-at-Oxford thing doesn't work out, having some ability with programming to build on isn't such a bad alternative.
posted by cowcowgrasstree at 5:26 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Her review of Brian May's doctoral thesis is worth a look.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 6:18 PM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Showed this to my 13-year old daughter who is interested in astrophysics. Said daughter now has a new personal hero, new Youtube channel to subscribe to, and more of a clue as to what astrophysicists actually do.
posted by feckless at 9:37 PM on November 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

Astrophysics doesn’t really suffer too much from older scientists not being coders (I mean push back far enough and you’ll find that, but most profs these days will have spent many hours coding in their career). The problem is usually that the older generation maybe haven’t been using the current coding ecosystems much.

Python has taken off really in large part with the most recent generation. When I did my PhD in the mid-2000s (also at Oxford as it happens) astropy simply wasn’t there. A serious effort by the current generation a smidge younger than me (including Becky!) has solved that, seen a way better uptake in better practices like hugely upgraded use of source control, and a pretty good push towards opening up software even more. Not something that astronomers were bad at exactly, but the change in philosophy is noticeable.

If you did start pursuing a career in this area there should be good support and training to get you coding along the way, but learning a bit early will certainly help, and yes, some pretty well paid jobs in coding and data science are major routes for those that cannot or choose not to stay on the academic track.
posted by edd at 2:19 AM on November 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Astrophysics is certainly a good place to develop the sexay computer skills of large data set analysis, which under the guise of AI/ML are currently the premium transferables to have across huge swathes of industry. The move from FORTRAN to Python is bang on here. You'll not only get experience in the sort of tools and techniques which will get you through lots of doors, but have the strong mathematical background to set you apart from the common herd.

A fantastic career in cutting-edge science during a golden age of discovery, or tons of dosh, Not a bad career choice to have to make.
posted by Devonian at 3:07 AM on November 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Her review of Brian May's doctoral thesis is worth a look.

Why would you ever read a PhD thesis you don't have to read?
posted by biffa at 5:19 AM on November 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

My housemates when I was doing my PhD in the late 90s were astrophysics PhDs, and I think a fair number of them ended up on the programming and IT side of things. Certainly none of them could have got jobs in fridge management. The filthy fuckers.
posted by biffa at 5:33 AM on November 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Actually watched the video at last. Best bit?

"Just walking past Jocelyn Bell-Burnett's office..."


(Now, if Obama was a gentleman, he'd have passed on that Nobel he got for Not Being Bush...)
posted by Devonian at 7:34 PM on November 28, 2019

Why would you ever read a PhD thesis you don't have to read?

Hell yes.
posted by neuron at 8:44 PM on November 28, 2019

I was an Astrophysics undergrad at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics in the late 80's. Even then it was all about computers. In fact, I was doing summer work there and a lot of it was writing FORTRAN on VAX/VMS. Much of it was writing statistical analysis algorithms, sometimes directly encoding Numerical Recipes. Much of observational Astro is either processing huge datasets (lots of observations spread out over time and space) or doing modeling.

The guy before me had written the first software for the hand-built telescope they have on the roof. But by the time I was leaving (1990) a few astronomers were already playing with Macs. Exciting times then meeting and working with Margaret Geller and others.
posted by vacapinta at 12:35 AM on November 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

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