I was recently asked the question, "Why does knowing about astronomy matter?"
After a brief fit of spluttering, harumphing, clearing my throat really loud and making inexplicable gagging noises, I gave her my answer which was waaaay shorter than the one you are about to read and more thoughful than my initial reaction, which was, "What?".
Not really, I didn't say that. I was caught off guard though, I just couldn't imagine anyone actually wondering that. It was like someone asking why food matters.
This question is nothing new, I've heard it a lot, I heard it during the 1960's and 70's about going to the moon, "Why are we spending all this money on going to the moon when have so many problems here on Earth?"
And things haven't changed much since then, "Why are we spending 8.5 billion dollars on the James Webb Space Telescope when we have so many problems down here?"
I get it. I really, really do. We have lots of problems here on Earth, on that you'll get no argument from me.
We all have problems and responsibilities. Many of us have to choose between paying the utility bill or buying groceries. We worry about how high gas prices are going to get and how we're going to afford getting to work.
That is, for those of us lucky enough to have jobs.
Many are under employed or hate their jobs.
"The kids have to get braces, the brakes are going out on the car, I hate my brother-in-law and they aren't making any more episodes of Firefly. ...and just WHAT IS THAT THING IN MY RICE KRISPIES?"
So again, I get it. We have lots of problems and responsibilities, but in the Grand Scheme of Things, they are all tiny. Not to us, of course, and they can drive us to varying degrees of crazy, but being myopic doesn't help.
None of us wants to hear this, but there is a larger world out there that really isn't about you or me.
We are a pretty selfish species and every one of us are inclined to think OUR STUFF is the most important. "How am I going to take care of me and mine", becomes a primary concern. "Enough about me, what do YOU think of me?"
So let's face this part honestly: regardless of what happens to any one of us (or ALL of us), the Earth will still spin on its axis and the Sun will rise tomorrow.
To realize that though, one would have to know that the Earth does, in fact, spin.
What's more, for the less selfish among us, there's the Bigger Picture:
- Why are so many people going hungry in the world?
- Why are there so many of us?
- How is it that so many die of preventable diseases?
- What's happening to the bees, the polar ice caps, the economy, nuclear power plants, the housing market, the price of food?
- Is the climate really changing? Is solar power a viable source of energy?
All of these things - large and small, local and global - conspire in different ways to affect the quality of our lives. Depending on who you are and how well taken care of you feel, it's either a net positive or negative.
All this baggage can really start to bum a brother out.
So, as human beings, we have things we gotta do to stay alive and live a quality existence, both for ourselves and each other.
This is where knowing about astronomy comes in and why it matters.
You have a responsibility to others to make good decisions in an attempt to contribute to the betterment of all, or to at the very least, not make things worse.
To do that, you need to know things.
- If you had a basic understanding of how the solar system formed, that over the course of millions of years, atoms of hydrogen and helium along with dust and other gases, slowing coalesced under gravity to form the Sun, using what was left over to make the planets, you'd know the kind of energy the Sun emits and what a powerful source of energy it could be. You might just understand the value of exploring alternative energy sources.
- If you knew how the Earth is different from Venus, Mars and Jupiter, you'd know just how precious the conditions on Earth are and how important, and presumably rare they are. You might then be less inclined to let BP crap in the ocean.
- If you knew the history of the Earth, you'd know that climate change has happened before - several times - and how devastating it can be to the dominant species on the planet. You might be less inclined to vote for short-sighted, unthinking politicians.
- If you knew how far away even the closest stars are to us and how unimaginably long the trip would take to reach them, you'd understand how vital it is to take care of the one planet where we KNOW life can exist and thrive.
- If you knew that if it weren't for those tiny points of light in the sky, you wouldn't even be here. There wouldn't be air to breathe, Toyotas to buy or cheeseburgers to eat. Everything comes from the stars fusing hydrogen into heavier elements and releasing them when they die. This is how it is possible for us (and Toyotas) to exist at all.
- If there wasn't just the tiniest bit more matter than antimatter in the early universe, there would be no atoms at all.
- If there wasn't just the tiniest bit of wrinkliness to the distribution of those atoms after the universe cooled, the stars would never have formed.
- If the stars had never formed, there would be no galaxies, no Milky Way and no you.
To live the fullest, most enjoyable life possible, you must understand it.
So yes, the problems down here on Earth matter, but solutions to them require context that only a knowledge of planets, stars and the universe as a whole can provide.
Knowing and understanding the stage on which your life is being played is crucial for any existence to have real meaning.
I mean, who the hell wants to just go through the motions? We need more than just sustenence and safety. We need quality. We need happiness. We need to know. We need to be better than when we started.
That's why we went to the Moon, that's why we built the Hubble Space Telescope, that's why we're building the James Webb Space Telescope.
So from my perspective, the question is not "Why does knowing about astronomy matter?", its more "How does knowing about it NOT matter?" or "How can you possibly live your life happily NOT knowing about it?"
Keep Looking Up!