Karela Fry

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Why is astronomy so fascinating?

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Evaporating Blobs of the Carina Nebula Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA

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?


4 Responses

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  1. I suspect we’re fascinated by astronomy for many reasons. The heavens seem so serene and beautiful, unaffected by and different from the chaos on Earth. And even though we now realize that there are dynamics of unimaginable energies out there, they still seem to play by their own rules. And I think most of us have at least a dim understanding that we’re from out there — whether the mythologic view that the gods in the heavens created the Earth, or the modern scientific understanding that the atoms in our bodies and of the Earth itself originated in a supernova — we’re from out there.


    April 24, 2012 at 6:01 am

    • All these are good reasons, and I suspect are true of a large number of people. The question I asked in the blog is whether they are just part of being human or whether we feel these things because of the culture we grow up in. The question is answerable, at least in principle. We could, for example, ask whether all the uncontacted Amazon tribes have the same feelings about astronomy.

      Arhopala Bazaloides

      April 24, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      • That would be a fascinating question. It seems to me that for any humans who live in areas of the world with seasonal changes, they would eventually notice that the star patterns shift relative to the seasons. It would be hard not to notice certain constellations always appearing in the snowy weather, others during harvest time, and so on. Eventually they would be using them to track the year and predict the seasons — don’t you think?


        April 25, 2012 at 3:24 am

      • Certainly. However, interest and use can be of different degrees. The flow of liquids is as useful, ubiquitous and interesting as the motion of the heavens, and also spins off pretty pictures. But you don’t find the media paying as much attention to (for example) turbulence in plasmas and their relevance to fusion energy generators as they do to lumpy distribution of dark matter inside galaxies. Couldn’t that have something to do with culture?

        Perhaps we could test our version of the nature vs nurture debate rather simply: sift through the database of documents on the web in different languages and check whether the fraction of documents using astronomical metaphors in other contexts (such as film stars, politicians gravitating to each other, the dark energy of chocolate) differs from one language to another.

        Arhopala Bazaloides

        April 25, 2012 at 3:54 am

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