Friday, November 4, 2011

Want to study astronomy but can't do math? Don't worry!

A few years ago, I wrote an article telling the story of how I overcame my math blocks and it has been the source of some really heart-wrenching emails over the years.

Many people wrote to me lamenting that they really wanted to go into astronomy as a career, but their lack of abilities in math prevented them from going into it as a major in college.

For many years I was one of those people.  Since I was eight, all I ever wanted to do was study space, to become an astronaut, to learn about what made the stars shine and galaxies spin.

But I couldn't do math, so I went into the Army and did a lot of other distracting things until I could do the math.  Read the article to get the long, sordid details.

Finally, after travelling a lot of side roads, I went into college and got a degree in physics (the University of Colorado didn't have an astronomy undergrad degree at the time).

I've been working in astronomy for twenty years now and during that time I've learned a thing or two about the importance of math in astronomy that I'd like to share with you:
  1. Being unable to do math isn't the primary obstacle to getting a degree in astronomy, physics, or any science for that matter.  People who are great at math flunk out just as often, or perhaps even more, than those who struggle with it.  There are other, much more important skills to develop.
  2. To be successful as an astronomer, problem solving and learning to ask the right questions is a WAY more valuable skillset than being able to do problem sets and fancy math.
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.
Even students with SAT math scores of 800 drop out of science majors or don't choose science as a career: they think it is too hard and they can't do it. Their math skills were the least of their worries.

The lesson here is that your inability to do math isn't as important to your success as an astronomer as you may think.

Don't get me wrong, you're going to have to do math, sometimes really hard math.

The thing is, you'll have resources available to help you: colleagues to discuss hard problems with, software that does a lot of the mathematical heavy-lifting, and journal papers to help you understand new concepts and ideas.

In astronomy and physics, math is a tool, a thing which helps us understand and describe the world we observe; to help us visualize the data from our telescopes.  In the end, it is up to the astronomer to ask the right questions of the data, perform the analysis, draw conclusions and write the paper.

And THAT is where your real success in astronomy lies.  If you can't ask the right questions or understand what your data are telling you, then you should run, not walk away from astronomy.

Compared to critical thinking, being able to solve differential equations by hand is almost irrelevant.

In my experience working in astronomy these 20 years, I've noticed a pattern among the most successful astronomers (listed in order of importance):
  1. Knew how to ask the right questions.  This enabled these astronomers to advance past their colleagues; this one skill enabled them to become leaders in their field because they recognized what was important and what was relatively trivial.
  2. Knew how to interpret and analyze their data.  This involves an advanced ability in critical thinking, something that simply isn't taught anywhere.  The main way I've seen people get this is by osmosis working in the field as a grad student or post-doc.  As things are now, astronomers get this organically, by working in teams. Their success in obtaining good critical thinking abilities seems to come from working well with others.  This needs to be emphasized more in our universities at the undergrad level.
  3. They were able to articulate their ideas exceedingly well, both to colleagues in and outside their specialty, as well as to lay people.  if people understood your research, you got more grants, more grad students, more fancy committee assignments, more recognition prizes, and more fame.
  4. They emphasized collaboration among their grad students, which by definition made them great advisors and enhanced the careers of their students.  An advisor like this is worth their weight in gold.
  5. They knew how to leverage their software engineers.  As a software engineer, I have direct experience with this.  By articulating their science problem to someone expert in data handling and software best practices, these astronomers enjoyed the best toys in the form of good software.  They could scoop other astronomers who were stumbling around writing their own bad code that only ran on their machine.  It astonishes me how many astronomers try to write their own code these days instead of focusing on science questions.
There are other qualities I've noticed, but these are the biggies.  I would argue that you should never let your lack of abilities to do math prevent you from pursuing an education and career in astronomy.

I have seen no study relating, nor do I find any correlation between, a person's math skills and their success as an astronomer.

The main lesson I want to leave you with here is not that math isn't important in astronomy, it is important.  I would argue however that those deficiencies can be overcome.  Instead of lamenting that you can't do math, ask yourself if you have any strengths in the five areas listed above.  If not, can you develop them?

Focusing on those abilities would serve you quite well as an astronomer, regardless of how well you do (or don't do) math.

If you persevere and look for ways to compensate for your math shortcomings (without cheating), I believe you can not only lead a rewarding life as an astronomer, but you just may become a leader in your field.

Keep Looking Up!


  1. Yea Math was never my problem, when i first went to colledge i took a trade skill thinking i would work and go back to colledge to study physics and computer sciences, too bad our ecconomy collapsed on us and the market for metalurgists and engineers dried up and blew overseas
    my suggestion to people nowadays is to study hard and study what you actually want to do and hope for the best

    Keep being awsome Mr. Darnell

  2. My fine art degree isn't getting me...anywhere. Thinking about going back to school for my other obsession, physics and astronomy

    Problem I'm dyslectic with numbers, the only math classes I were ever any good at were algebra classes, and even those I've failed. Numbers in general confuse and stress me.I get what your saying here and it is encouraging but, I'm still not really sure what to do at this point, just go for it? kinda a big money investment

  3. Thank you :) I know this was written a while ago. but I'm about to be a 25 year old freshman going for my bachelors in Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. I've been racking my brain over the "am I smart enough for this" and " I have done math in 7 years" I've been in the medical field since I was fresh out of high school and am now deciding to pursue my dreams. :) Wish me luck.

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