I want to be a solar physicist. Do you have any advice?
I believe that a solar physicist is, above all, a Physicist. Therefore, you should try to gain the best physical and mathematical background that you can. Subjects like Atomic Physics and Spectroscopy, Radiation and Transport phenomena, and Fluid Mechanics all converge to Plasma Physics, which is the basis of a solar physicist's education. These subjects are relevant even to a space physicist and an astrophysicist. I do not know of any university with a masters or a PhD program which converges from all of these subjects to solar physics in this way. You can find parts of a complete solar physics education, however, in several universities, such as here, at La Laguna, in Frieburg and Goettingen Univ (Germany), and in St. Andrews (Ireland), and others too, in a more limited way. I am not very familiar with the US universities at this level. However, in these, and other universities, you can find very good solar physics PhD courses.
What about the actual health of solar physics nowadays? There are some existing projects that are yielding a fair amount of data in many areas of solar physics. Projects such as: a). SOHO, an ESA-NASA project, which is generating data in helioseismology (interior of the Sun), in the solar atmosphere (chromosphere, transition region and corona) both in the visible, UV and extreme UV wavelengths; b). two STEREO spacecraft which in 2011 will be deployed 180 degrees apart to observe the entire surface of the Sun for the first time; c). the ULYSSES spacecraft, which is studying the interplanetary medium near and above and below the sun (from the poles). Also from the ground: there are projects such as the helioseismic networks of GONG, IRIS, TON and BiSON; and projects operating at great observatories at Sac Peak, Kitt Peak, Big Bear, Hawaii, Canary Islands and others which have incorporated new instrumentation to better measure the magnetic fields on the Sun through polarimetry. These projects are yielding a huge amount of high quality data that will take at least a decade for us and others (maybe you) to study.
You may think that this will finish with the problems in solar physics and none will be left for you. Not at all, they just create new questions which will demand better instrumentation and cleverer mathematical analysis procedures and more ingenious models to make everything fit together, in order to provide a nice and complete understanding of our Sun. In fact, extensions (extended missions) of GONG (US) and SOHO will give solar physicists impetus to try to understand the Sun's structure, the solar activity and its origins. New projects are being developed such as: Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) in USA, a new-generation telescope of 4m diameter. Another new project is SDO , which has instruments that measure Doppler velocity shifts and extreme-ultraviolet irradiance, and will make high-resolution images of the chromosphere and inner corona, and longitudinal and vector magnetic flux images. This will help to better understand the causes of the solar cycle, and the changes in the Sun's magnetic field, and lead to the possibility of predicting space weather in the future. HINODE (Solar-B) is another new space observatory that was launched in 2006 and placed on a heliosynchronous orbit to continuously observe the solar disk, and make monochromatic images of the transition region and corona, and high-resolution X-ray images of the magnetic field. As you can see, there are plenty of new ideas and projects that are being developed right now, and those that are on the road to receiving adequate financial support.
However, my personal view about the financial picture for basic solar research for the next five or so years in Europe is not very optimistic. At the moment, in Europe, there is a shortage of money for basic research, as opposed to applied research. However, I believe that we will succeed in attracting enough funds for continuing the solar physics research as part of Sun-Earth interaction environmental studies. Such "space weather" studies show the relationships and causal effects of the Sun on the near-Earth and on the atmospheric Earth, and these studies are likely to be the sources of major investment in the near future. I believe that the situation in the US is nearly similar.
I hope that you do not get too worried and/or exultant in reading this. I, personally, believe that, when studying at a university, one has to follow ones own feelings and study the matters that makes one happy; after all, what one learns is how to solve physics-related problems. What specific problems that you will have to solve in your future is difficult to predict, at the stage that you are at now. A bit of HAKUNA MATATA, is NOT bad at this moment. However, this is a very, very personal view.
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Special Thanks to T. Roca Cortes Updated on March 17, 2009.