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Cosmologist


Description

There are numerous theories about the origins of the universe . . . from the big bang theory to cosmic ancestry. Centuries ago, when religion was the dominant belief system, it was thought that that the cosmos were created by a divine Being. After the Scientific Revolution however, many physicists and cosmologists turned their once religious philosophies to explore other scientific ones. In a nutshell, cosmologists are astronomers who conduct scientific studies of the origin and structure of the universe.

The field of cosmology holds many scientific debates as there are so many different theories. However, when Albert Einstein discovered the theory of relativity, this marked a dramatic evolution of the understanding of the universe, up to that time perceived mainly in terms of Newtonian physics. Einstein's theory seemed to bring into our grasp the unfathomable mystery of the cosmos. The theory of relativity expresses the relationship between time, space and energy, and has spawned a range of other correlative theories about the universe.

Many cosmologists believe that our universe is constantly expanding and accelerating at great speeds. They conduct observational and theoretical research to broaden their understanding of energy, matter and natural processes throughout the universe, particularly beyond Earth. They also study distant galaxies and the birth and death of stars that live many light-years away. This helps explain how old our universe is in relation to other galaxies. Everyday, cosmologists are discovering something new about our universe.

Cosmologists actually spend very little time gazing at the stars. Instead they spend the majority of their working hours analyzing data and observational material. They use a variety of ground-based and space-borne telescopes and scientific instruments to make observations of and obtain data on astronomical objects. Basic properties such as mass, physical properties, motion, distance, size and brightness may be measured to test hypotheses about the nature of the universe and matter within it.

Some cosmologists work at major observatories and research institutions, where, in addition to their own research activities, they plan and help implement new instruments and techniques. Cosmologists, in addition to having academic research skills, need to be experts in various aspects of observatory and instrument engineering, and computer techniques. Most cosmologists connected with universities have teaching responsibilities and are expected to produce original research work for publication in scientific journals. Finally, being scientists, they must follow the scientific method of creating and testing theories and make sure their calculations are correct when conducting experiments.
 
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  Interests and Skills  
Cosmologists must have an aptitude for physics and mathematics, and be able to pay close attention to detail. Most are fascinated with outer space and cosmology. Cosmologists must enjoy working with others as members of a team, while at the same time working alone with a capacity for reflection and contemplative study.

They should have excellent writing and computer skills, and patience and curiosity of the physical world. Successful cosmologists enjoy synthesizing information and finding innovative solutions to problems, using sophisticated instruments and equipment to perform tasks requiring precision, and supervising the work of others.
 

  Typical Tasks  
  • Design and conduct observational surveys
  • Conduct detailed analyses and develop numerical models to extend knowledge of celestial bodies and radiation received from the component parts of the universe
  • Study the formation, structure and evolution of stars, galaxies and planets
  • Develop or participate in the development of instrumentation and software for astronomical observation and analysis
  • Use microscopes to generate initial scientific data and research
  • Study basic properties such as mass, physical properties, motion, distance, size and brightness
  • Work on research projects with other cosmologists, astronomers and physicists
  • Write research papers for scientific journals and conference proceedings
  • Teach astronomy or cosmology at universities or in astronomical societies
  • Present lectures and talks at conferences
  • Cosmologists work in a variety of settings. Observational work requires unconventional hours and a considerable amount of travelling. Sometimes, cosmologists work at high altitudes in remote areas where the weather conditions can be extreme. General research and teaching work will be within the time constraints of a standard workweek.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Cosmologists are employed by university and government research laboratories, observatories, planetaria and science centers. Some may also find employment in aerospace and related space industries. Positions are scarce, especially in research, and competition for advancement is intense.

  Long Term Career Potential  
What does the future hold for cosmologists? Since most cosmologists have PhDs by the time they actually start doing the work they have worked so hard to get to, they are happy staying within the career field. In fact, the job turnover rate is almost nonexistent. However, cosmologists can move into computing jobs, creating models and computer programming to analyze astronomical data. They could also move into other areas of physics.
 

  Educational Paths  
Cosmologists require a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in astronomy, cosmology or astrophysics as the minimum qualification for work in technical positions in observatories, planetaria and science centers. A master's degree is required for most research assistant positions and a PhD is needed for university teaching and most federal government research positions. Most cosmologists who have doctoral degrees work as post-doctoral fellows before finding permanent employment. Also, PhD graduates must prove themselves by having articles published in magazines or scientific journals before they become well established or recognized within the field of cosmology.
 

Sources:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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