Why is astronomy so fascinating?
Is astronomy so fascinating because of pictures like the one above, or is our fascination with such pictures a result of cultural conditioning? Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, in an article in NYRB gives us a short history of astronomy as a big science, with lots of state patronage over long periods of civilization:
Astronomy became big science early, with substantial support from governments, because it was useful in a way that, until recently, physics was not. Astronomy was used in the ancient world for geodesy, navigation, time-keeping, and making calendars, and in the form of astrology it was imagined to be useful for predicting the future. Governments established research institutes: the Museum of Hellenistic Alexandria; the House of Wisdom of ninth-century Baghdad; the great observatory in Samarkand built in the 1420s by Ulugh Beg; Uraniborg, Tycho Brahe’s observatory, built on an island given by the king of Denmark for this purpose in 1576; the Greenwich Observatory in England; and later the US Naval Observatory.
In the nineteenth century rich private individuals began to spend generously on astronomy. The third Earl of Rosse used a huge telescope called Leviathan in his home observatory to discover that the nebulae now known as galaxies have spiral arms. In America observatories and telescopes were built carrying the names of donors such as Lick, Yerkes, and Hooker, and more recently Keck, Hobby, and Eberly.
But now astronomy faces tasks beyond the resources of individuals. We have had to send observatories into space, both to avoid the blurring of images caused by the earth’s atmosphere and to observe radiation at wavelengths that cannot penetrate the atmosphere. Cosmology has been revolutionized by satellite observatories such as the Cosmic Background Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, working in tandem with advanced ground-based observatories. We now know that the present phase of the Big Bang started 13.7 billion years ago. We also have good evidence that, before that, there was a phase of exponentially fast expansion known as inflation.
So is our public fascination with astronomy due to cultural engineering, nurtured by state patronage over deep history?