Astronomy is one of the few scientific fields that interacts directly with society. Not only transcending borders, but actively promoting collaborations around the world.
Throughout history, humans have looked to the sky to navigate the vast oceans, to decide when to plant their crops and to answer questions of where we came from and how we got here. It is a discipline that opens our eyes, gives context to our place in the Universe, and reshapes how we see the world.
Astronomy has always had a significant impact on our world view. Early cultures identified celestial objects with the gods and took their movements across the sky as prophecies of what was to come. Now, as our understanding of the world progresses, we find ourselves, and our views, even more entwined with the stars. The discovery that the basic elements, found in stars, and the gas and dust around them, are the same elements that make up our bodies; has further deepened the connection between us and the cosmos. This connection touches our lives, and the awe it inspires is perhaps the reason that the beautiful images Astronomy provides us with are so popular in today’s culture (ex.) Juno’s live mission to Jupiter, Mars Rover Curiosity, and of course the Hubble Space Telescope.
There are still many unanswered questions in Astronomy. Current research is struggling to understand questions like: “How old are we?”, “What is the fate of the Universe?” and possibly the most interesting: “How unique is the Universe, and could a slightly different Universe ever have supported life?” Astronomy is also breaking new records every day, establishing the furthest distances, most massive objects, highest temperatures, and most violent explosions.
Pursuing these questions, and these challenges, is a fundamental part of being human, yet in today’s world it has become increasingly important to be able to justify the pursuit of these answers. The difficulties in describing the importance of Astronomy, and fundamental research in general, are well summarized by the following quote:
“Preserving knowledge is easy. Transferring knowledge is also easy. But making new knowledge is neither easy nor profitable in the short term. Fundamental research proves profitable in the long run, and, as importantly, it is a force that enriches the culture of any society with reason and basic truth.”
– Ahmed Zewali, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1999)
As such, teaching Astronomy to our youth is of great value. It has been proven that pupils who engage in astronomy-related educational activities at a primary or secondary school are more likely to pursue careers in science and technology, and to keep up to date with scientific discoveries (National Research Council, 1991). This does not just benefit the field of Astronomy, but reaches across other scientific disciplines.
Several studies over the last few years have indicated that investing in science education, research and technology provides a great return, not only economically, but culturally and indirectly for the population in general. The scientific and technological development of a country, or region, is closely linked to its human development index, a statistic that is a measure of life expectancy, education and income (Truman, 1949).