Why Care About Astronomy?

I need to get something off my chest. A month or so ago I was sitting in a classroom surrounded by 10 peers. For the first time this semester we had the opportunity to spend the entire day discussing astronomy. And I was thrilled to dive into that brilliant subject, which I have adored for most of my 26 years.

But it didn’t take long before the day turned sour. Most of my classmates touched on one common theme: why should we care about astronomy when it has no practical applications? It’s a concern I have seen time and time again from students, museum guests, and readers alike.

So dear world, here is why you should care.

It’s true that astronomy has few practical applications and yet somehow its advances benefit millions of people across the world.

Just as astronomy struggles to see increasingly faint objects, medicine struggles to see things obscured within the human body. So astronomy has developed technology used in CAT scanners and MRIs. It has also developed technology now used by FedEx to track packages, GPS satellites to determine your location, apple to develop a camera for your iPhone, to name a few.

But all of these are mere second thoughts, benefits that have occurred without the primary intention of the maker. And that is what makes astronomy beautiful. To study something — not because we’re looking to gain anything in particular, but out of sheer curiosity — is what makes us human.

Doing things for their own sake creates room for mindfulness and joy. Aristotle makes this point in his Nicomachean Ethics. He says: “the work is the maker in actuality; so he loves his work, because he loves his existence too. And this is a fact of nature; for what he is in potentiality, the work shows in actuality.”

Work itself is inherently valuable and it is somehow connected to our very existence. It stands alone and not as a path toward a paycheck or a practical application. Countless studies show just this. In one famous example, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, both from the University of Rochester, asked two groups of college students to work on various puzzles. One group was paid for each puzzle it solved. The other group wasn’t.

Deci and Ryan found that the group that was paid to solve puzzles quit the second the experiment was over. The other group, however, found the puzzles intrinsically fascinating, and continued to solve the puzzles well after finishing the experiment. The second group found joy in the puzzles even when — and perhaps because — there was no monetary value to gain. There’s mindfulness in the act of work itself.

Then there is the sheer joy of looking up. On the darkest of nights, far from the city lights, thousands of stars are sprinkled from horizon to horizon. We now know there are over one billion stars in our galaxy and over one billion galaxies in our universe. It fills me with such wonder and humility to know our small place in the vast cosmos above us.

I firmly believe that astronomy has a spiritual dimension, maybe not in the sense of a supreme being, but in the sense of how it connects us with something bigger than ourselves. It brings us closer to nature by illuminating the ongoing mysteries in the universe.

Because of astronomy we now know that the Universe sparked into existence 13.7 billion years ago. We’ve spotted shining pinpricks of light in the early universe and know them to be supermassive black holes, with such strong gravitational fields, that matter is raining down onto them. We’ve seen distant galaxies colliding in a swirl of stars, gas and dust. And we’ve spotted thousands of planets orbiting other stars.

We’ve glimpsed the wonders of the universe — both big and small — for others to appreciate. So while astronomy doesn’t set out with the intention of changing our lives on a practical level, it does change our lives. It has explained mysteries that have confounded us for thousands of years, but more crucially, it has opened up more mysteries than any of us can study in our lifetime.

I have to wonder: what human being isn’t compelled to study a discipline that sparks such curiosity and joy?

17 Replies to “Why Care About Astronomy?”

  1. It is truly an inspiring thing to look up.

    Psalm 19:1
    The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

    However, Astronomy has brought us the theory of the Big Bang, and the idea that the start of the Universe was a supernatural event sounds too much like something else. Once you’ve opened that door …

    1. And then God wrote a roll of toilet shit papers about wars and racism called the Bible.

      Why is your fanatically political spam propaganda here allowed, when my posts are censored when I point out the obvious physical fact that Orion cannot go to Mars?

      1. No… not God wrote the Bible, “inspired ” people did. We have no proove why they did it and their motives could cover a wide range. And our religious leaders expect that we “belive without question” what they call facts. That is one reason why I turned my back on them.

      2. FarAwayLongAgo,
        I was really enjoying this article and just started reading the comments. Wow, you blew me away with your crass and tactless insulting post. There are many mysteries to both the cosmos and the human condition that are such a pleasure to explore. We really don’t need hateful and bitter comments like yours spoiling the fun. If you really wish to be so ornery why not read io9 and post there. You will find a bunch of elitist hate mongers to spend your time with.

    2. I don’t know that “Astronomy has brought us the theory of the Big Bang”. No, it only brings us observations and knowledge, (along with resulting guesses and theories). Astronomy is only the study; people form their many and contradictory conclusions (guesses and theories) according to their personal preference. This has NOTHING to do with the Truth, only personal world view.

    3. “However, Astronomy has brought us the theory of the Big Bang,”

      and the theory that the earth is round.

      “and the idea that the start of the Universe was a supernatural event sounds too much like something else.”

      I dunno anyone who describes the Big Bang as a supernatural event.

      ” Once you’ve opened that door …”

      Speak plain English.

  2. Thank you Shannon for your wonderful article that deeply resonates within me. Many times, I have felt the same way when, around me, many people brushed off astromony as having any kind of importance. Whenever I would bring up something that I felt important to share on the subject, I could see and sense my surroundings being unaware and uninterested in the subject. And I kept wondering why…
    it’s true that my acquaintances might not like astromony as a whole or see its value, but I keep thinking that having some respect and some awe in what it represents would be a minimum. I believe if people cared more about astronomy and turned their eyes to the sky once a while, our world would be a different one: more respect for one another, better humility of our fragile nature both human and environmental. We attribute too much importance to our daily experience and forget that in the cosmic vastness, it matters yet is only occurring on a tiny grain of sand..

  3. Ugh, I hate when ppl express such narrow-mindness about anything that doesn’t immediately allow them to profit or smthg.

    They’re like a man in a cave- he looks at a forrest in the distance, yet is affraid of it, and will bark at anyone wanting to spend a little resources to mount an expedition. He’s good in this cave of his, and will neglect the importance of scouting ahead, for we know there are countless opportunities in there…
    Yes, the forrest truly is dark and intimidating, yet there’s certainly enough reason to go there.
    Even if all that it’s going to do is to saturate one’s curiosity, that’s a valid reason as well. And curiously observing this forrest from a distance, certainly is a first step that one should take.

    I can’t understand ppl who are just not interested in learnig about their surroundings, ignorant about what’s out there.
    It’s just not… human.
    I guess some ppl just happen to be that way. It’s very frustrating, I don’t quite know myself what to say to my friends who are the same as these students portrayed here… I mean, it’s not like astronomy shoud be viewed as being some bizzare hobby, every one of Earthlings should want to know what’s out there… It’s just how we all should be.

    1. Nice analogy, the caveman and the forrest 😉
      I think most or a good part of our “modern population” are just brain lazy… they don’t want to think / experiment /explore. “Everything is fine the way it is… so why change it?” This seems to be our nature: some do the work / take the risks while others don’t care.
      But without those few we’d still be sitting in a cave!!!

  4. UFo abduction people too have a “spiritual dimension” to their denial of physics. It is too bad to see that Universe Today has become a spam hole for UFO abduction believers who deny all of reality and refuse to rely on anything scientifically. That’s sad. But it has been ongoing for some time, this severe degradation of posts on UT. It is just getting worse by the day, misinforming more by the day.

    1. And, there you go again……. Your comment has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of the article, so why do you troll here?

      As to the subject, we all should be trying to inspire our families, friends, acquaintances, every chance we get. I try to share a good, balanced number of space and astronomy articles on face book, email, and in person and it pays off. I could go on with a lot of examples and brag about my grandchildren’s knowledge, but I’ll just say it works.

    2. FarAway,
      I don’t know what you’ve written here that got censored as you say, but I fail to see what your comments here have to to with the subject (why care about astronomy). As a long time reader of UT, I can’t say I’ve noticed any “UFO Abductionalists” posting an article here. Ever.
      If you want to be able to say anything you want, you might want to try creating your own web site on GoogleSites. They will be happy to let you write about UFO abductions or Orion not being able to travel to Mars. Even UT might let you do latter, if you keep your wording insult free. I’d like to know why it can’t and why you think it to be obvious. Just not on this post, which is about the importance of astronomy and not about Orion or Mars. There are plenty of other posts on that.

  5. Shannon,
    I was very interested in your article based on the title and the promise. I read it and agree with it. More than anything I liked this part:

    “I firmly believe that astronomy has a spiritual dimension, maybe not in the sense of a supreme being, but in the sense of how it connects us with something bigger than ourselves. It brings us closer to nature by illuminating the ongoing mysteries in the universe.”

    The notion that the universe hides and reveals aspects of our own humanity and yes spirituality is something that intrigues me. Unlike some atheists that make it their mission to excoriate religious people, I find both the spiritual and science implications of studying the universe both pleasurable and fulfilling. I would like to think our purpose has a grander meaning. When I delve into cosmology or peer into the deepest views of our nights skies I feel like our possibilities our endless. With all that we don’t know, I find it so limiting to proclaim that either domain, spirituality OR science, to the exclusion of the other has the absolute final answer to the enduring questions of the human condition.

    Personally, I do believe in a supreme being, but I also believe that being gave us free will, curiosity and a drive to unravel the scientific mysteries and very nature of the universe around us. I my opinion, exploring the sciences of our surroundings is one of the great endeavors that would make our creator proud.

  6. Far too many people live under the bright lights of our cities and never actually see the glories above. I lived in the Los Angeles basin for 15 years where one sees only the brightest stars or planets with the naked eye. Occasionally, we would travel to/or pass thru the surrounding mountains or deserts at night. I remember going out there and looking up and just being totally blown away by all the stars… “Oh.. my.. god! There they are!”

    I left LA in 1984 after a rough breakup with my then fiancee and moved to Northern California. I found a studio apartment on a cattle ranch in the country outside of Petaluma, CA, about 75 miles north of San Francisco. As I bought furnishings for my new digs I thought about buying a television for entertainment at night? Instead, thinking I might finally get a chance to study the stars, I opted to buy a telescope. That was the second best thing I ever did!

    It takes about a year or so to get to know your way around the night sky. That first year will always be precious for me as that was when I made friends with the night time sky and the infinities above and realized that I would never be alone again… even (especially) on the darkest nights.

    1. Nice! The first time I camped in Wyoming was like that. Now I live in the NC mountains and still marvel at the night time sky. My wife and I love to watch meteor showers from our deck.

  7. It is ironic that those most accomplished in astronomy are the ones who waver so frequently about its importance.

  8. It’s hard to understand why people consider Astronomy as not very important or something that doesn’t provide any ‘practical benefits’. But when I think about this I get this feeling that we humans have a narrow/limited view of things. We tend to give importance to the things that affect us more closely. So leave aside having awareness of our solar system and the universe beyond it, we don’t even think collectively about ourselves as residents of the planet Earth! If we did, just as we try and accustom ourselves to our surroundings and place where we stay for example, we would also be thinking about humanity’s place of stay on planet Earth and understand our surroundings.
    Astronomy also studies asteroids and comets and whether any of them have the potential to collide with our planet. Perhaps when such a scenario is really going to happen, then the people will wake up and take a look at Astronomy seriously 🙂 (hopefully will not be too late then!)

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