Some folks in the "scariest thing in the universe" AskReddit thread were asking for an AMA, so here I am guys- ask whatever you like from your friendly neighborhood astronomer!

Background about me:

  • I am an American gal currently in the 4th year of my PhD in radio astronomy in the Netherlands. Here is a picture of me at Jodrell Bank Observatory a few weeks ago in the UK, and here is my Twitter feed.

  • My specialties are radio signals (even worked a summer at SETI), black holes that eat stars, and cosmic ray particles. I dabble in a lot of other stuff though too, plus the whole "studying physics and astronomy for a decade" thing, so if your question is outside these sorts of topics in astronomy I will try my best to answer it.

  • In my spare time I publish a few times a year in Astronomy and Sky & Telescope and the like. List of stuff I've written is here.

  • Nothing to do with astronomy, but I've been to 55 countries on six continents. Exploring the universe is fun, be it galaxies far away or foreign lands!

Ok, fire when ready!

Edit: By far the most common question so far has been "I want to be an astronomer, what should I do?" My advice is study physics, math, and a smattering of programming for good measure. Plan for your doctorate. Be stubborn and do not lose sight of why you really decided you want to do this in the first place. And if you want more of a breakdown than what I can provide, here is a great overview in more detail of how to do it. Good luck!

Edit 2: You guys are great and I had a lot of fun answering your questions! But it is Saturday night in Amsterdam, and I have people to see and beer to drink. I'll be back tomorrow to answer any more questions!

Comments: 1933 • Responses: 60  • Date: 

sharpie660411 karma

What is the most likely thing that could destroy Earth completely (or at least remove all life) that would come in the next 100 years?

Andromeda321741 karma

Destroying Earth completely is pretty hard- it's a rather big rock.

Destroying all life is similarly hard- those bacteria by the thermal vents aren't going to die from most things we'd die from.

Destroying humanity though... well assuming it's not us in thermonuclear war, I'd go with a space rock slamming into us. We know it happens pretty regularly, and the Russian meteorite a little while back was a 20m diameter rock that injured a thousand people. We currently have no defenses in place even if we discovered one big enough to destroy the planet.

kinglouislxix326 karma

you're very impressive. would you like a trophy husband?

Andromeda321338 karma

Yeah, but I'm picky. So what do you have to offer a globetrotting astrophysicist? ;-)

kinglouislxix338 karma

I'm a nifty cleaner, can cook decently well, I'll take care of the kids (if and when you want them), I like expensive things, I'm in great shape, I know three languages, I love traveling, I'm an excellent packer, I'm always very prepared, I have an impeccable sense of direction, in three months I'll be a college graduate (so you can [hopefully] help pay for my loans), and I'm supposedly rather attractive.

shall I continue my résumé or are you already swooned?

Andromeda321347 karma

The issue I have here is your assumption that a PhD stipend is enough to cover loans!

OhAnotherSquirrel309 karma

How does one go about starting this type of career?

Andromeda321452 karma

Study a lot of physics and a lot of math. These days, astronomy is a branch of physics where we use the universe as our lab to study how things work, and you pretty much get a physics degree even if you major in astronomy. (I actually did physics straight up through my MSc.)

Beyond that, I'd say being stubborn and approaching things with a keen sense of wonder helps too! :)

Tchrspest323 karma

You're telling me that by studying the two topics I WANT to study in college, I have a shot at the career I WANT to be in?!

I wish I could put into words just how happy I am right now.

Andromeda321198 karma

Sounds like my thought process when I figured it out at the time too. It's great, ain't it? Good luck!

MeanKids266 karma

In the hacking community, we have these things called "Final Solutions". If you're ever raided by the Feds, all of your files are released onto to the Internet, there's nothing that can stop it.

In the case that something goes tragically wrong here on earth like a gamma ray burst, do we have a "final solution"-esque thing that launches our history and our story into space in hopes that some other life form will find it?

Andromeda321173 karma

I'm really not aware of any conscious attempts at something like that, no. But we send out stuff like radio signals every day without thinking about it, so that will be our best legacy (along with the stuff we left on the moon).

awesomenessjared216 karma

What's the coolest thing you've seen through a telescope?

Andromeda321643 karma

When I was a teenager I was lucky enough to attend astronomy camp out in Arizona. One night we looked at the sky through a 61" telescope with an eyepiece.

A globular cluster had so many stars in it you didn't know what to focus on, nebulae had all sorts of strange colors, and you could see multiple gaps in Saturn's rings!

If I had the money I'd send all of our politicians out for a night of observing on that telescope- we wouldn't have any issues with funding anymore.

gulpozen66 karma

nebulae had all sorts of strange colors

I didn't know you could see the colors of a nebula. I thought they always appeared grey and black to our eyes.

Andromeda321137 karma

They don't in a 61" telescope!

No really, even the Orion Nebula had some color in my 8" I had as a kid. It looked greenish, due to the oxygen in it.

StickyBiscuits13 karma

Hi! Why does the oxygen make it look green?

Andromeda32128 karma

It's the emission line of oxygen when it's excited. They're all specific for different atoms and transitions of the electrons, and that's a particularly common one.

shyloh13 karma

Mt. Lemmons observatory?! I went to that camp in high school. It's what made me decide to get my bachelors in astronomy. I'm currently working on a Masters in medical physics so it didn't quite pan out the way I'd planned, but it's super cool to hear from someone else that's been.

Andromeda3219 karma

Oh cool, what year did you go? I was there 2002-2005, as both a camper and then a counselor.

Mr_Anderssen179 karma

What are the recent breakthroughs in astronomy that most people don`t know about and what do you think will be some future breakthroughs in your expected lifetime?

Andromeda321377 karma

What most people don't realize is these days extrasolar planet searches are getting to the point where we can now find Earth-sized planets, and start making observations of atmospheric composition of extrasolar planets too (though usually bigger). So those in the field tell me in a decade or so we should be able to measure if there is free oxygen in a planetary atmosphere.

Free oxygen for those who don't know pretty much requires life to put it there, as it oxidizes really quickly with rocks otherwise. So if I had to bet my money, we're going to first know of life around other stars from this measurement.

Mind it won't be as spectacular as many people think such a discovery should be- we won't know from this measurement if it's an algae or an advanced civilization putting that oxygen there- but it'll still be something!

Cassiterite80 karma

Mind it won't be as spectacular as many people think such a discovery should be

I've got to disagree with you a little on this point, because even finding algae on other planets would be pretty damn spectacular!

Andromeda321227 karma

Nah, I don't think it'll really change people's viewpoints on the universe as much as they think in the long run. Most will just post about it on Facebook.

PooJizzPuree156 karma

Do you believe in Aliens?

Andromeda321552 karma

Believe there is other life in the universe, yes. Believe it has come to Earth, no.

ArchieMoses90 karma

Do you believe their is life within our solar system? Bacteria, etc?

Andromeda321347 karma

Well we're life in our Solar System. ;-)

No really, I don't see why there can't be bacteria on Mars or Europa and such. It happens pretty much anywhere you look on Earth, so I find it pretty closed-minded to assume we're that special.

MagnifyingGlass142 karma

Do people ever mix your job up with astrology and ask you for their lucky numbers this week? Also what are my lucky numbers this week?

Andromeda321437 karma

Oh yeah. Really awkward when a guy does that who's trying to chat you up in a bar.

Your lucky numbers are 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.

nonhiphipster131 karma

Can you tell us one truly awesome fact about space that would blow us away, that most of us may not already know?

Andromeda321356 karma

By sitting still, you are moving 1.9 million miles per hour (3 million km/hr). Most of this is from the Milky Way moving towards an area called the Great Attractor.

Here is a breakup if you want to know more about where that number comes from.

Edit: for those asking, gravity is what's pulling us to the Great Attractor. It's most likely an even more giant bunch of galaxies.

3_2_1_booom16 karma

There's one thing that I always wondered, what is the reference when saying: We're going at 3million kph? Is it another galaxy? Is it that great attractor?

Andromeda32138 karma

The reference is the Cosmic Microwave Background.

puzzledmoon108 karma

What do you think of the "Wow!" Signal?

Andromeda321130 karma

I think it's certainly interesting, but without repeatability it's really hard to say more about it.

MrAlarming102 karma

What is your favourite type of star?

Andromeda321375 karma

The Sun. I figure I kinda owe it to him.

morebitter99 karma

Will I ever find my one true love?

Andromeda321296 karma

jgwink284 karma

What's your take on dark matter? It makes up most of the universe but we can't see it or even detect it (yet). It seems strange that something so vast can remain hidden.

Andromeda321141 karma

It is strange, but the universe tends to behave the way it does whether we think it's odd or not. Proof: quantum physics.

All we know right now is there are various observations you can make showing gravity doesn't work the way it should on the scale of galaxies, so right now people are looking for what could cause it. For various reasons right now dark matter is the top theory to explain it.

brohammer572 karma

This is actually about your experience with traveling our own planet. I am planning to leave for southeast Asia for a few months soon, what advice would you give to myself and fellow travelers out there looking to do something similar?

Andromeda321229 karma

SE Asia is really fun, you'll have a blast!

A few tips off the top of my head: immodium is the best drug mankind has invented, check out the Gibbon Experience if you're heading up to Laos, and don't do anything dumb that you wouldn't do at home (ride a motor scooter without a helmet, accept drugs from strangers, walk home alone on an unfamiliar road at 2am). 99% of things you read going bad happen when people think a holiday from home means a holiday from common sense.

Have fun!

bblasnalus62 karma

Hi, Is the edge of the universe cold or hot?

Andromeda321174 karma

There is no edge of the universe, but the average temperature in our universe is 2.73 kelvins. So just a touch above absolute zero- brrr!

magiteker61 karma

What affects did the double X class CME have last week?

Andromeda32182 karma

I got spectacularly jealous of my friends further north than me who posted marvelous photos of the northern lights.

No really, that was the biggest effect from that flare- some radio bands got super noisy, but I didn't hear of any other effects.

Pure_Michigan_41 karma

Our cable had been kinda shitty lately. Kinda figured it had to do with this. Am I wrong?

Andromeda321340 karma

Probably not. Though Reddit tells me the reason for your cable being shitty is Comcast, even if you don't subscribe to Comcast.

mistertilly57 karma

What's your favorite bit of trivia about the Universe you like to share with people?

Andromeda321126 karma

You can see my user-nameskake, the Andromeda Galaxy over 2.5 million light years away, with the naked eye under reasonably dark conditions if you know where to look. Check out this star map and try to find it!

Thecna251 karma

Do you read SciFi and go 'ugh... ridiculous' on every page? I like a bit of hard scifi myself and there are quite a few astronomers/astrophysicists involved in the genre these days. If you do read it what authors/styles do you like? Or, given that youre a student, do you not have the time?

Andromeda32180 karma

I don't read as much as I used to these days unfortunately- a thesis takes up a lot of time. But I have inhaled a LOT of science fiction- Bradbury and Clarke are my favorites, I keep it classic.

I don't have an issue reading science fiction (I'm more a basket case in astronomical mistakes when watching movies), but I've found it's far harder for me to write about astronomy from a fictional perspective these days. I'm too close to the topic, so I can't suspend my disbelief and "allow" things to help the plot along.

baba_94448 karma

In short, what IS a GRB?

Andromeda32180 karma

GRB= Gamma Ray Burst= flash of gamma rays. I know, we're very creative with our names.

They are the most energetic thing in the universe, and we see them almost daily from satellites above Earth that see them in faraway galaxies. They are of various durations and a few things can cause them, but most commonly they are caused in specific supernova explosions.

EchoandtheBunnym3n36 karma

Ok, fire when ready!


Do you guys keep a running tab of how many stars have been observed by the human race so far? Also, how would astronomers keep track of all of them?

What exactly is a nebula, and do we know how they're formed?

Have we been able to observe any planets that may contain water?

Andromeda32138 karma

I don't think anyone's keeping strict track, as there's no point when there are billions of them. But we do catalog the stuff we see out there with things such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

A nebula is a puff of gas in space. There's more than one kind, but the kind you're likely thinking of (where stars form) is just a bunch of hydrogen gas that's been around since the dawn of the universe.

Mars has water, as does Europa and Enceladus. Liquid water on the other hand...

Pure_Michigan_32 karma

I have a twofer, if you don't mind.

You said a rock is the most likely chance of taking us out, but what about Sun flares?

Have you gotten any signals that suggest life? Even a quick blip of hope?

Andromeda32155 karma

Solar flares could, sure, but there's no evidence that's happened since humanity's been around, and the question was what did I find most likely in the next 100 years.

Check out the Wow! signal.

raunak1234530 karma

Hi is time travel possible? Stephen hawking feels it is what are your views on this?

Andromeda32174 karma

My issue with time travel is if we could do it where are people from the future? I find it impossible to believe that one teenage prankster wouldn't decide to mess with us!

reinfleche28 karma

I am a high school student very interested in astronomy. What is the best way to get started and when did you first know that it was what you wanted to do?

Andromeda32148 karma

I first decided I wanted to be an astronomer when I was 13 and read a book on the topic. Best way to get started is go find a star chart and learn your constellations- it's that easy!

Also, study hard in math and physics. Seriously.

Magneto8827 karma

Which do you think has the most potential for life in our universe: Mars, Europa or Enceladus? and do you support NASA's heavy current focus on Mars?

Andromeda32114 karma

Sorry it's been busy! I think Mars is currently the focus because NASA knows they can get there to do great science, and get there with a year's turn around, and if they find life there they are set for funding for a little while. It's a very strong science case.

Cool as the other options are, they are very far and speculative so it's not clear just what your return would be.

TheEpicTurban25 karma

Do you think one day us casuals will be able to goto space relatively cheap?

Andromeda32140 karma

I sure hope so! On the bright side there has never been a more optimistic time for an Average Joe to go to space, so my fingers are crossed.

KiKenTai18 karma

What's the difference between astronomers and astrologers?

Andromeda321197 karma

I study real stuff.

Xopata14 karma

As someone looking to go down a (relatively) similar path to you, thanks for the IamA.

So, questions:

1) Ever do any amateur visual astronomy?

2) How is the employment environment/pay? (feel free to ignore that if it's too personal)

3) How hard is the path? As in, is strong motivation/dedication and a solid base of knowledge enough to succeed?

Andromeda32132 karma

1) For sure! I had an 8" telescope as a teenager, and know all my constellations and the like. (Maybe a quarter of astronomers can do that.)

2) You won't starve, but you won't be rich either- as a postdoc (ie post PhD) you are looking at $50-80k depending where you look. Pay is a tradeoff though for the lifestyle where you get to do what you love, and no one cares when you work as long as your work gets done.

3) Really hard these days- post PhD about 10% of those who get a doctorate will end up being a traditional professor of astronomy (numbers vary based on who you ask, but the point is it's very competitive). So you need luck in life as well.

Mind, I tend to think of it this way- I get a few years right now where I get to do what I want to do and be paid for it, and most people would kill to ever have that opportunity. So even if I don't find a traditional astronomer's job after this, I will forever be thankful and happy that I've done this!

Arnetto14 karma

I just just started my Bachelors in Physics and trying to go on the same route as you :) What caused you to study Anstronomy? And what scares you the most in the Universe?

Andromeda32136 karma

What scares me most in the universe is my adviser on days when I screwed something up that I should have been able to do. ;-)

I first got into astronomy when reading a book on the topic at age 13- I used to read a lot as a kid, and still do! I love stories and the story of our universe is the biggest story I can think of.

AbsoluteZro12 karma

What's it like studying in the Netherlands? I was just in Amsterdam for a bit, and found the people to be really friendly.

We're there no programs in America that interested you, or was this part of your drive to explore our planet, and experience something new?

Andromeda32121 karma

Studying in the Netherlands is great because there is a far healthier work/life balance than in the USA- I get 5 weeks holiday a year and if I didn't take it my adviser would get mad at me. I also get paid more, because here I count as a junior civil servant and not a student (though to live in Amsterdam you need more than a stipend for sure!).

There were some interesting programs in the USA, sure, but heading out somewhere new with a new lifestyle was more a bigger draw than anything.

powerhouseAB10 karma

Could you specify how exactly you work with radio signals? What do you look for/what is their value?

Andromeda32113 karma

I use a telescope in the eastern Netherlands called LOFAR. We take all the signal information off the antennas and use it to make images of the sky at radio frequencies.

g_kesavahraj10 karma

What's your favourite ice cream flavour?

Andromeda32126 karma

Moose tracks. Unfortunately they do not sell it where I currently reside (the Netherlands), so I'm down to eating it maybe once or twice a year. :-(

NotMyCircus4 karma

Can we somehow ship you some?

Andromeda3216 karma

If you find a way I'm all ears. It's not an issue of imports etc so much as keeping it frozen.

They also don't have peanut butter cups here, so making my own is doubly difficult. :(

19_9 karma


Andromeda32135 karma

Well there are theoretical astronomers and physicists out there, but that can be a touch tedious and repetitive too at times.

Protip: all jobs will have something in them you don't like. The trick is finding a job where you love all the other stuff enough to put up with the parts you don't like.

ftppftw7 karma

If we only see gamma ray burts in far away galaxies how do we know they even still occur? The light from those galaxies is millions of billions of years old, which means it was that long ago. Perhaps the types of stars which exploded to form them no longer exist?

Andromeda32129 karma

Those stars still exist.

Being an astronomer is like if you were an alien biologist who had one day to wander around a city and figure out the human life cycle- you'd look at how babies are born, how they grow up, and then how they die, but you wouldn't watch one the entire span of one life. That's how astronomers piece together the lives of stars.

xxcheese6 karma

Thank you for this Ama! I have so much admiration for what you do. I am about to purchase my first telescope. I would like to dive right in and find a professional, really nice telescope. (Money will not play a role in choosing). Do you have any recommendations?

Andromeda3219 karma

Hah well I haven't bought one in awhile so maybe /r/Astronomy can help you out more, but I recall Meade builds an amazing product. Check them out!

ModularMollusc5 karma

What are your thoughts on climate change? Is it much more serious than the media would have us believe?

Andromeda32117 karma

I agree with the AAAS that says climate change is as conclusive a scientific fact as the idea that smoking causes cancer. link

I think there are enough projections out there by people who spend their lives studying these things to be rather serious, yes.

smchemique3 karma

Are you a fan of Neil Tyson?

Andromeda32110 karma

I think he is an amazing science communicator! I confess though my geek crush will always be Carl Sagan. You never forget your first love. ;-)

TheSalmonOfKnowledge2 karma

Were you inspired to take your current educational path by the book/movie Contact, and would you have taken a ride in "the machine"?

Andromeda3216 karma

For sure- Contact was my favorite book in high school, and I would be hard pressed to choose another that influenced me more! I was in fact lucky enough to spend a summer at SETI working for Jill Tarter, the Ellie Arroway inspiration, in college- my absolute dream up to that point.

I think I couldn't resist such a ride, but my mom would be a little upset at that decision. ;-)

pnewell1 karma

What was harder, the physics, astronomy, or astrophysics?

Andromeda3216 karma

I don't know if there's too much difference these days. A bigger difference is theorist versus experimental research. No way I could be a theorist. shudders

FatherCain1 karma

As someone aiming for a physics baccalaureate, I just have to ask: How much of your work as an astronomer would you class as "fun" work instead of just plowing through data? And what degree would you consider essential to really get into the field? Is a baccalaureate good enough, or is a doctorate really essential?

Andromeda3212 karma

A doctorate these days is really essential I would say, with some rare exceptions. Check out the AAS job register for example- with the exception of some telescope operators, virtually all jobs require a PhD.

There is a lot of tedious "my code doesn't work for some inane reason" moments. But there are a lot of really cool moments too, like learning something new about the universe no one else knows, or traveling to faraway places on an observing run. For me these things are worth the tedious parts!

killingit121 karma

Hey, I started a Astrophysics degree just this week, any advice? Also, reckon you could hook me up with a sweet work placement? I'll buy you a beer! Cheers!

Andromeda3216 karma

Go to class.

TheOneTrueE1 karma

Would you ever sign up for a manned mission to the moon or one of our planets?

Andromeda3215 karma

I would love to go into space someday! The moon I would totally do, Mars I'd have to think a bit more about. Mainly because it's at least a year to get there, and most likely a one way ticket, so that's quite the lifestyle decision.