When Maria Drout wants some quiet time on a plane, she identifies herself to her seat mates as an astrophysicist.
“They get stunned into silence,” she said.
If she’s in a social mood, she calls herself an astronomer, running the risk of being drawn into nonscientific tangents about planet alignments and astrological signs.
Drout is a third-year graduate student in the department of astronomy at Harvard, where she and her fellow grad students surveyed public perception of the terms “astrophysicist” and “astronomer.” The results backed up their anecdotal impressions.
“People hear the word “physics” and think it’s a harder science and people who are more qualified than mere astronomers,” Drout said.
Harvard’s astronomy grad students recently persuaded the college administration to add the term “astrophysics” to the graduate degree in astronomy.
Drout’s friend Evan Schneider is trying to do the same thing at the University of Arizona, though it is proving to be a tougher sell.
At Harvard, the students simply had to persuade the faculty. In Arizona, the question has to go all the way to the Board of Regents. An attempt a couple of years back fell short because of resistance from the UA physics department, Schneider said.
There is even some reluctance from members of the astronomy faculty, who don’t see much need to change the terminology. A graduate degree in astronomy from the UA is a highly regarded credential, equal to a similar degree from other heavy-hitting programs at Harvard or Berkeley.
If you’re pursuing an academic career or competing for a NASA or National Science Foundation grant, it doesn’t matter, said Nick Ballering, a UA astronomy grad student who looks for the signature of extra-solar planets in the infrared spectra of debris disks imaged by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
His work is as much physics as it is astronomy, he said.
Schneider, meanwhile, is writing code for a supercomputing program that models the hydrodynamics of gas particles that could lead to better understanding of galaxy evolution and planet formation. It’s more physics than astronomy, she said.
It’s not a cosmetic change, the students said. Academic astronomers know the worth of the degree and the knowledge of physics and other sciences it entails, but the world at large does not, said Schneider, who is president of the graduate council at the Steward Observatory.
Last month, the students presented their evidence to the faculty and won an ally in Buell Jannuzi, who holds the dual titles of astronomy department head and director of the Steward Observatory.
“They made a good case,” said Jannuzi, who encouraged the students to meet with the physics department faculty and overcome any potential objections.
“In astronomy, it makes no difference,” said Daniel Marrone, a Steward Observatory astronomer who is also the chairman of the graduate admissions program.
Marrone said he supports the change because the students presented data that clearly showed a preference for astrophysicists in the outside world. “I’m all for making their prospects better,” he said.
The department does not require grad students to take physics courses, but few graduate programs do, including Harvard and Berkeley.
The knowledge is expected, said Schneider, whose undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College is in physics and mathematics.
“Our argument is that we ‘do’ astrophysics,” she said.