Before addressing how colleges and universities approach these two sciences, it is necessary to glimpse into what each of them involves.
What is Astrophysics?
It is a science that uses laws, theories, and physics principles to study astronomical objects and phenomena. These celestial objects include stars, galaxies, nebulae, planets, black holes, and emissions from these objects. Therefore, it combines astronomy with physics – the former one of man’s first sciences and obsessions. However, it wasn’t known as astronomy thousands of years ago when people built Stonehenge, the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, stone circles in the Nubian desert, Chaco Canyon sandstone slabs, and many more.
Astrophysics is multidisciplinary as it involves classical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, particle physics, nuclear physics, electromagnetism, astronomy, and others. One that predates the others is astronomy, as evidenced by the aforementioned megalithic structures. Famous names, such as Eratosthenes (275-195 BCE), Copernicus (1473-1543), Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), Cassini (1625-1712), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726) became pioneers in astronomy.
What is Physics?
The word translated from ancient Greece means the knowledge of nature. It is one of the natural sciences that studies matter, energy, force, and the motion and behavior of matter through time and space. Overlap occurs with astronomy and physics, as demonstrated by Galileo and Newton through the application of mathematics as a tool in physics. Other specialties and subspecialties overlap with astrophysics in the laws of electricity, magnetism, and electromechanical waves. Notably, Englishman Michael Faraday (1791-1867) discovered electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and electrolysis through his study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. Albert Einstein revered Faraday by keeping a picture of him on his study wall!
At first, astronomy and physics were married until the early Europeans used quantitative and experimental methods to discover what resulted in the laws of physics. The laws of physics evolved into scientific laws based on repeated experiments and observations. Until the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries, physics and astronomy were intertwined. William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer independently discovered dark gaps or absorption lines in the sun’s spectrum. The two terms could have been used interchangeably until the advent of astrophysics as a distinct and separate science.
Schools are offering a Bachelor of Science in Astrophysics, for example, the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago within its Physics Department at the Lewis College of Science and Letters. Although astrophysics and physics are not interchangeable, they share an intimate relationship. In this example, students can earn a dual degree in both fields in four years. The coursework affirms the relationship with the study of general physics, electromagnetism, classical mechanics, relativity, observational and stellar astrophysics, and math methods in physics.
Similarly, Rice University’s B.S. major in astrophysics covers many of the same subjects: mechanics, electrodynamics, quantum physics, thermal physics, astronomy, and astrophysics. There is also the choice of a B.A. in physics with courses that differ slightly from the astrophysics major. The physics curriculum includes nuclear and particle physics, thermal physics, and biological physics, for example.
Rice’s B.S. in physics offers four concentrations:
- Applied Physics
- Biological Physics
- Computational Physics
- General Physics
Rice doesn’t have a master’s degree in astrophysics or physics, although students may earn a master’s while working on their doctorate in physics.
The divergence between astrophysics and physics seems to occur at the graduate level. The former becomes associated with astronomy, for example, the Master of Astronomy at the University of Iowa. This 30 semester-hour program incorporates stellar astrophysics, galactic astrophysics, relativity, cosmology, and high energy astrophysics.
Students interested in astrophysics at UCLA will have to apply to the astronomy and astrophysics graduate program. The school offers an M.S. in Astronomy and Astrophysics or Physics. Unfortunately, the master’s in physics is only available to those pursuing a Ph.D. in physics.
Individuals who want courses in astrophysics should research graduate programs in astronomy. Another example is the M.S. in Astronomy at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, whose learning outcomes include mathematical physics, astrophysics, cosmology, and either classical mechanics, quantum theory, or electromagnetic theory. Students have the choice of a thesis or non-thesis track. Graduates will be qualified for a career in astronomy, astrophysics research, or education.
A master’s degree in physics provides some of the same subjects: electromagnetic theory, quantum physics, atomic physics, classical mechanics, and nuclear physics, for example, the M.S. in Physics at Northeastern University’s College of Science. The main difference is that the master’s programs in physics and astronomy exclude astronomy in most instances.
Schools do not use the two degrees interchangeably, although the coursework is similar at the undergraduate level. As the examples above illustrate, many programs share common topics for a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics or physics. Whereas, in graduate programs, schools integrate astrophysics into astronomy curricula.