Why do astronomy? I get this question quite often and I think it can be answered by contemplating two parts: why would anyone become an astronomer and why should others pay for it?
Why become an astronomer?
Most astronomers choose their profession out of passion. A great deal of passion for the mysteries of the universe is perhaps the strongest and longest-lasting driver to conduct great research, promote and defend its results, and withstand the occasional dry spells of an academic career. I think passion is half of what it takes to become a good astronomer. The other half is talent. Any modern astronomer needs ease with analytical thinking and a healthy dose of physical intuition. If you have both the passion and the talent, then you should be an astronomer! If you have passion, but don’t know about talent, then give it a try! If you have talent, but don’t know about passion, maybe gaze at the stars again?
Why should society pay for astronomy?
Some of my colleges answer this question by citing from the long list of technological spin-offs that arose from research in astrophysics. While this argument alone can justify the worldwide investment in astronomy, I chose to put it last in the following list of overwhelming reasons why any society should invest in astronomy.
- Culture of innovation – Astronomy is one of the most inspiring fields of science. Its pictures, stories and discoveries fascinate children and adults of all human cultures. The words and pictures of astronomy convey a culture of human exploration and innovation. They inspire children to study science and engineering, and drive original minds to innovate. This investment will ultimately benefit our society in very powerful ways impossible to foresee. As Neil deGrasse Tyson so thoughtfully pointed out, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were 13 and 14, when we first set foot on the moon. Did they become astronauts? No, but they had leaned that human innovation knows no boundaries.
- Unifying people – Astronomy brings people together. In fact, astronomy has evolved into an international venture of global scale. All large telescopes of the 21st century are multi-national, often intercontinental enterprises. Astronomers from various nations and cultures join forces to advance the frontiers of science. In doing so, they build social and economic bridges across borders. Moreover, astronomy – like any other science – is about objective investigations of reality through logic and quantitative measurements. This objective basis reduces differences in belief systems and brings people’s thoughts closer together. I have seen astronomers of various religious beliefs and non-beliefs gather in one room and talk about the same truth of the universe based on scientific measurements. For those reasons, astronomy ultimately contributes to a global understanding and peace.
- Technology spin-offs – Research in astrophysics regularly results in technologies that can be transferred to applications, beneficial to millions or billions of people: the CCD chips in pocket cameras and smartphones were originally developed to measure the faint light of stars and galaxies. GPS satellites used to navigate cars, ships and planes, rely on distant galaxies to determine accurate positions. Medical MRI scanners able to image the inside of a human body build on technology developed in astrophysics. The list of such spin-offs is long and fascinating; many more examples can be found in this article by Marissa Rosenberg et al. Even giant theories, such as classical mechanics, the basis of all modern industry, derive from astrophysics.
What will astronomy reveal next?