UChicago to offer major in astrophysics

Program adds research involvement, statistics, computer science to physics coursework

Scientists at the University of Chicago have been unraveling the secrets of the far-flung universe for more than a century, but starting in 2018-19, undergraduates will be able to formally declare a major in astrophysics.

“I am thrilled to see the astrophysics major come to fruition and the interest that it has already generated,” said Angela Olinto, the Albert A. Michelson Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences. “We know our students are proud of the department’s incredible legacy in the field, and we are delighted to deepen that connection with a formal major.”

Previously, students interested in the habits of stars and galaxies would major in physics, which underlies much of the study of the universe, and enroll in elective courses in astrophysics. The new major will continue to require physics coursework, but also feature a central sequence tuned to major topics in astronomy and astrophysics; courses in statistics, computer science and observational techniques useful to prepare for research; and an effort to match students with a research placement by the summer of their second year.

“The new astrophysics major is a splendid addition to an already very strong set of research and teaching programs in the physical sciences,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “Given the extraordinary distinction of the Department’s faculty, students will have remarkable opportunities to engage with leading scholars and to encounter path-breaking research about the nature of our universe.”

Student operates a telescope on the top of a roof. It is dark and the lights casts faintly onto the student's face.

Jonathan Kyl, then an undergrad, uses a telescope atop the Eckhardt Research Center in 2016. Photo by Chris Sheehy

The major is designed to get students into research ASAP, said Julia Borst Brazas, the administrator of academic affairs for the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “We have this incredible faculty working on the biggest questions in the field right here, and we want to get students invested early,” she said.

Rebecca Chen, a rising fourth-year, is one of 10 students expected to graduate this year with the new degree. “I think it’s great—it really provides people with the flexibility and foundations that they really need for the field,” she said. “It gave me a little more space to take courses that directly impact my future research.”

Chen has conducted research with Profs. Rich Kron and Chihway Chang during her tenure, working both with telescope equipment and analyzing the data from large astronomical surveys. “That really gave me a feel for what the different areas of research are like and which is the best fit for me,” she said.

The University has been home to luminaries in astronomy and astrophysics since the department was founded in 1897 by George Ellery Hale, who built some of the leading telescopes of the day. Other faculty and alumni whose names are scattered across space and stars today include Edwin Hubble, SB 1910, PhD 1917, an astronomer who played a crucial role in establishing the field of extragalactic astronomy; Gerard Kuiper, sometimes referred to as the father of modern planetary science; Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, a Nobel laureate who described the evolution of stars and black holes; and Eugene Parker, who discovered the solar wind and described magnetic fields in space, among many others.

Originally posted by UChicago News, September 28, 2018.

Tagged: astrophysics, Physics, majors and minors