Why do Astronomy?

Astronomy teaches CURIOSITY.  There’s no better way get a child (or an adult!) curious about the world than through the wonders of Space – Why is the night sky dark?  How many stars are there?  Are there aliens?  How does a black hole work?  There are endless wonders in the universe and we have barely begun to understand a small fraction of all there is to be known.  Learning to wonder at an early age is the first step to cultivating a habit of creative and critical thinking, an essential trait in our much-touted ‘knowledge-based economy’.

Astronomy teaches SCIENCE.  It’s a common misconception that Astronomy is just about ‘looking at stars’.  But mankind didn’t send men to the Moon, calculate the size of the universe, understand the origins of the Solar System, or invent GPS by just ‘looking at stars’.  Global warming on Earth was understood because astronomers had studied the atmosphere of Venus and understood how it worked.  The atmosphere of a distant star can be measured by understanding how chemicals in that star absorb different coloured light which we see here on Earth.  The sky is dark because the universe is expanding and light from far away is stretched into a wavelength we cannot see.  By always looking out and asking ‘why?’ we can learn a lot of Science through Astronomy and vice versa.

Astronomy teaches HUMILITY.  Perhaps no one makes this point better than the venerable Carl Sagan, in his reflection of an image taken of Earth as a Pale Blue Dot from the spacecraft Voyager 1 as it approached the edge of the Solar System:

Pale Blue Dot


“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

– Carl Sagan,  1997

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