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Ask Michelle Your Questions

Click here for Michelle’s profile.

Are you a time traveler? A dancer? An explorer?

OK, so those are our questions for you.

Now you get to ask Michelle Thaller your questions.


Hi, first of all, I think you’re one of my favourite Secret Lifers. But actually, I was wondering what the difference between astronomy and astrophysics is–and this is a career path for me, so I’d really like to know what I’m weighing up, here! And yes, I’m a dancer–I think I’ve been beat to dancing in the world’s observatories! (my form is ballet)

A: Michelle Thaller

Okay, seems good to go. The short answer is that when it comes to a career in astronomy, there is really no difference between being an “astronomer” and being an “astrophysicist.” There used to be more of a distinctions, but science has moved on since that was true. Astronomers used to map the night sky, describe how the Celestial Sphere (the sky observed from Earth) worked, plotted the time of solstices and equinoxes, stuff like that. They were interested in the cycles and positions of the stars in the sky, but at that time, no one knew much about how stars really worked. Then in the early 1900’s, people began to piece together the whole story of what a star really way -what they were made of, how they formed and evolved, and the physics of what makes them work. Hence, “astrophysicists” were born. These days a professional astronomer is almost always an astrophysicist. In some cases, people work as professional observers at large observatories without a background in physics. But when you go to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, our professional society, all the talks and presentations are about astrophysics.

Honestly, I use the terms interchangeably these days.

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Tom Miller

    Tom Miller is the producer of “Secret Life” and co-editor of the site’s blog. His job involves interviewing scientists and engineers, getting them to tell their amazing stories and occasionally trying to get them to sing. It’s a fantastic gig and Tom is extremely grateful for it.