It’s always good, when setting out on a new venture, to avoid confusion by exposing assumptions and declaring intents. To this end, we will unpack three concepts – astronomy, science, and (later) outreach – and attempt to answer what each entails, what their value is, and who uses them.

At the risk of putting the cart before the horse, we note here that – contrary to the popular saying – facts do not speak for themselves. Rather, everything is interpreted from within a thought framework. We hope that by exploring these concepts and forging answers, we can create an inclusive framework that elevates our understanding.

What is “Astronomy”?

At first glance, this question seems straight-forward to answer. However, bearing in mind that an answer is given from within a particular perspective, and that sometimes perspectives are both taken for granted and narrow in focus, it is productive to examine the perspectives of others who have answered this question.

Some definitions of astronomy

Please share your answer to Question 1:

What is astronomy? When you hear the word, what things do you think of? How would you define it?

Handout 1:

Here are some definitions of astronomy. What do you think of them?
1. “Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena.” (Wikipedia)
2. Astronomy is “the art of observation and measurement … using radio, optical, IR, UV, x-ray, gamma-ray, neutrino, and gravity-wave studies, to measure positions, brightnesses, spectra, and structure of gas clouds, planets, stars, galaxies, globular clusters, clusters of galaxies, superclusters, quasars, etc.” Astrophysics is “the application of physics to these observations to understand and interpret them.” “Astrophysics is intimately connected with what astronomy is able to observe. Until recently, there was little high-energy astrophysics because there were no high-energy (x-ray and gamma-ray) detectors.” (Astronomy 345, SUNY Stony Brook)
3. “The science of astronomy goes back millennia and is one of the oldest of the natural sciences. Astrophysics, the application of physics to understand the nature of the Universe, is a relativity new scientific field that has blossomed in the last few years.” (Smith 2016)
4. “The science of astronomy, astrophysics and astrobiology expands mankind’s understanding of the Universe. It seeks to answer fundamental questions as to the nature of our Universe, our place within it, and whether there is life beyond Earth.” (Babin 2016)
5. Christine Jones, President of the American Astronomical Society, reported to an American government committee on “Why astronomy matters”. She noted: “Throughout history, astronomy has provided fundamental contributions to science and insights about the nature of our Universe. Over several centuries, our view of the Universe and our place in it has changed dramatically.” She touched on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton; as well as Shapley, Curtis and Hubble. In passing she mentioned navigation, timekeeping, general relativity, and nuclear physics. (Jones 2016:2)
6. For the AstroGen project, the authors defined astronomy as “the scientific study of anything that is or comes from outside the Earth, and the development of tools to facilitate such study.” (Tenn 2016)

For some time now, our definition of astronomy has been “Celestial objects and phenomena as contemplated by people.” ‘Contemplation’ is defined as “the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time.” and its synonyms are “viewing, examination, inspection, observation, survey, study, scrutiny; deep reflective thought.”

Polcaro (2016) has phrased the same understanding somewhat better, and we’ve adopted this as our working definition:

Astronomy is the human activity devoted to the interpretation of what is seen in the sky.

Why bother doing astronomy?

Please share your answer to Question 2:

Why do astronomy? What is its purpose?

Handout 2:

Read these opinions about astronomy and discuss them.
1. “Astronomy is boring – it’s for geeks, is too difficult, and it’s without practical application.” (Anonymous feedback)
2. “Because of its intrinsic interest, Astronomy is able to attract young generations towards the technical and scientific careers… Moreover, it is also an indirect trigger of innovation and consequently of financial profit.” (Audouze 2009)
3. “Young astronomers brimming with enthusiasm often cannot understand why nations do not spend far greater sums on astronomy. The answer is simple. Most citizens would prefer to feed their children, assure them of good health, send them to good schools, and provide them a secure, predictable future – rather than to be taxed to support the conduct of astronomy at the expense of their children.” (Harwit 2009)
4. “How, precisely, can astronomy be of benefit to anyone? This is an important question in the context of modern high budget science where justification of funding in terms of goals is central to supporting one project rather than another. There is of course the purely intellectual answer that basic research is manifestly important, otherwise we, society, makes no progress. But it is hard to argue that fast spinning asteroids, however interesting they may be, are “manifestly important” to anyone other than a small community. The public, the taxpayer, feels that in these days of financial crisis there has to be a direct return on investment. Many of my academic colleagues would argue against that, saying that the return is a deeper understanding of nature from which all benefit. That may be so, but the public needs to see that benefit, it has to be tangible.” (Jones 2009)
5. “Despite the fact that astronomy may be considered humankind’s boldest attempt to understand the world in which we live, addressing fundamental questions such as “are we alone?”, “what is the Universe made of?”, and “how did it all begin?”, which have deep philosophical, religious, and societal impacts, astronomy is too often limited to the science sections that are accessed by a small audience.” (Boffin 2009)
6. “So how can astronomy be of general benefit to society at large? 1000 or more years ago the answer might have been: “To make better astronomical predictions for casting more accurate horoscopes”. 500 years ago and until the last century the answer might have been “To look after clocks and global positioning”. Today, the clearest answer might be: “To inspire the public at large”. That is undeniably important, but surely there has to be more to it than that?” (Jones 2009)
S: “Shall we set down astronomy among the subjects of study?”
G: “I think so, to know something about the seasons, the months and the years is of use for military purposes, as well as for agriculture and for navigation.”
S: “It amuses me to see how afraid you are, lest the people should accuse you of recommending useless studies.” (‘Republic’, Plato, c. 380 BCE)

Astronomy is often noted as being an inspiration to the other sciences, as Valls-Gabaud & Boksenberg (2009:6) note:

“Explaining the structure and phenomena observed in the sky inspired Newton and Einstein to make their fundamental discoveries whose universality changed our understanding of nature … To gain understanding of the Universe in space and time astronomers need to apply the entirety of accumulated knowledge in the physical sciences. In turn, the discoveries continually push the borders of scientific knowledge. Alongside this are the engineering and technology challenges of producing ever more versatile and accurate instrumentation and detectors, building ever larger and more precise telescope structures both on the ground and orbiting in space to receive radiation from the furthest and faintest objects in the sky, and devising ever more sophisticated means of computational analysis and modelling.”

This line of reasoning produces the “standard list” of reasons for doing astronomy:

  1. Astronomy brings about industrial innovation
  2. Astronomy fosters national pride & prestige
  3. Astronomy popularizes STEMI (science, technology, engineering, maths, and innovation)
  4. Astronomy produces allied abilities & training
  5. Astronomy produces new knowledge

In 1995, Emmanuel Davoust (an astronomer at Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées in Toulouse, where he pursues research on interacting galaxies) published a paper titled “The purpose of astronomy”. Davoust, a member of IAU Division C (Education, Outreach and Heritage) and a past member of Commission 41: History of Astronomy (2003-2015), regards “What is the purpose of astronomy?” as a poorly phrased question, noting that it is predicated on a faulty idea of scientific research: the view that astronomy is an isolated science with well-defined boundaries.

He unpacks the nature of scientific research further, pointing out that the linear model of research – astronomy leading to concepts leading to “useful” applications – is naive.

“From this point of view, the only use of fundamental research is to increase the collection of knowledge which, sooner or later, will find a ‘useful’ application, thanks to someone ingenious and curious.” (Davoust 1995:3)

Instead, Davoust presents a multi-dimensional model of fundamental research, developed by French sociologists studying the role of research in society. The model considers five dimensions (social institutions: the media, the scientific institution, industry, government, and the education system), what motivates each, and how their performance is evaluated.

This richer model is a vast improvement on the simple linear model presented above. By exposing the context it allows for an appreciation of the dynamic nature of research.

Others have expressed similar sensitivities:

“… astronomy is not to be viewed as a narrow subject operating in isolation but one that has contributed comprehensively to the advancement of society.” (Valls-Gabaud & Boksenberg 2009)

Towards the end of his paper, Davoust presents a new reason for the relevance of astronomy:

“I would add a sixth aspect to the five preceding ones: the role of astronomy as inspiration in fields that have nothing to do with science. I mean artistic, literary, or religious creativity.”

Davoust presents some justification for this, noting for example that the sky “has always been the location of the sublime, or transcendence, and this is why so many works of art have been inspired by it.” His paper is well worth reading closely.

More recently, Williams (2009), discussing the public perception of astronomy, writes:

“By and large, the value of astronomy to society lies in its philosophical and inspirational qualities that derive from a better understanding of the Universe and our relation to it.”

Similarly the 2010–2020 IAU Strategic Plan (IAU 2009) has identified three focus areas: technology & skills, science & research, and culture & society. The “interdisciplinary nature of astronomy” is further unpacked (IAU OAD 2016:3) as follows:

technology & skillsoptics (high-precision; adaptive optics), computing (fast hardware; complex software), electronics (most sensitive detectors; clocks), and space (satellites; miniaturisation; precision).
science & researchphysics (laboratory of extremes; making heavy elements), chemistry (producing organic molecules), biology (building blocks of life), and mathematics (abstract thought).
culture & societyinspiration (career in science & technology), perspective (immensity of space; global citizenship; Earth stewardship), history (evolution of the Universe; our origins; big history), and anthropology (ancient civilisations; cultural roots).

Probably the closest to an “official” statement on the relevance and importance of astronomy is given by Rosenberg et al. (2013). Published i.a. on the IAU website and titled “Astronomy in everyday life”, the article highlights technology transfer, astronomy in everyday life, and as a catalyst for international collaboration.

It is perhaps too harsh a judgement, but in our opinion the article is somewhat retrograde, paying lip service to astronomy’s cultural importance. The authors admit this in the closing paragraph of the article: “Although we have focused mainly on the technology and knowledge transfer, perhaps the most important contribution is still the fact that astronomy makes us aware of how we fit into the vast Universe.”

With our more inclusive definition of astronomy in mind, and considering the initiative Davoust took, we have expanded the traditional list of the function of astronomy as follows:

Table 1: Ten reasons why astronomy is relevant today
Astronomy brings about industrial innovation
Astronomy fosters national pride & prestige
Astronomy popularizes STEMI
Astronomy produces allied abilities & training
Astronomy produces new knowledge
Astronomy is a source of beauty and the experience of wonder
Astronomy is a source of creativity in art, literature & film
Astronomy is a source of moral & ethical guidance
Astronomy is a source of philosophical & metaphysical inquiry
Astronomy is a source of religious inspiration

This broader list of motivations may seem controversial at first glance, and may be entirely unpalatable to some. To others, it may be a welcome addition to the otherwise dry, reductionistic mindset sometimes encountered.

The final words belongs to Robert Williams, former director of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, who discussed the value of astronomy and noted:

“Like music, one can live one’s life without it.” (Williams 2009)

Who uses astronomy?

Keeping in mind our inclusive definition of astronomy as the interpretation of what is seen in the sky, and considering the ten reasons listed in Table 1, the answer to the question “Who does astronomy?” is no longer limited to “Astronomers.”

Scholars concerned with astronomical heritage, archaeoastronomy, and ethnoastronomy, have a broader view of who uses astronomy, and what for. Cotte & Ruggles (2010:4) provide the following thoughtful categorization (which, incidentally, may suggest new avenues or opportunities for outreach):

tangible immoveable heritagetangible moveable heritageintangible
property / objectsarchitecture; permanent constructions and structures, fixed instrumentsplans; moveable artefacts; moveable instrumentspractical/technical expertise; rules of use and maintenance; structural/architectural history of the site
results of scientific activities (in the broadest sense)stone carvings; wall paintings; iconography; palaeography; symbolic representationsrecords/accounts of observations; printed and digital data; sky maps; scientific publicationsknowledge and understanding; calculations and theories
socio-cultural applications and usesastronomically aligned architecture; light-and-shadow hierophanies; urban planning and landscapes constructed using astronomyarchives; drawings; maps and plans, tools or instruments using astronomical properties (e.g. sextants for maritime purposes or moveable sundials in social use)calendars; ideology; predictions of the future (whether rational or irrational from modern perspectives)

Considering these suggestions, we can compile a working list of people interested in astronomy (Table 2). Please feel free to modify it and let us know!

Table 2. A rough list of who uses astronomy
academics & researchers
alien visitation investigators (e.g. Elizabeth Klarer, “Beyond the Light Barrier”)
amateur astronomers
applied biological scientists
applied psychological scientists
archaeoastronomers & ethnoastronomers
architects & urban planners
astrologers (“the reason I don’t believe in astrology is because I’m a Gemini.”)
authors & poets (e.g. Isaac Asimov, Sol Plaatjie)
casually interested (general public)
educators (e.g. teachers, youth group organizers)
environmentalists (e.g. light pollution activists)
folk beliefs holders
navigators (incl. aerial navigation)
outreach practitioners (e.g. Patrick Moore, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, Arthur Bleksley)
performing artists (films & TV, e.g. “Star Trek”)
professional astronomers (e.g. astrophysicists, cosmologists)
religious observances (e.g. Ramadan, Shawwāl, Easter)
science communicators (e.g. journalists, bloggers, social media jockeys)
space engineers (e.g. space craft and satellite design & operation)
space explorers (e.g. Elon Musk, Mark Shuttleworth)
surveyors (incl. early explorers)
tourism operators (e.g. astrotourism guides, nature guides, niche guest house operators)
traditional knowledge holders
visual artists (e.g. “Starry Night”)
“alternative history” believers (e.g. lunar landing conspiracy theorists)

Within the context of conducting outreach, this list suggests the categories of people you are likely to encounter. A well-prepared astronomy outreach practitioner would do well to know something about these topics and interests.

Incidentally, it is not only humans who use astronomy: “many animal species use the stars as means to find the direction for their migrations.” (Sandberg et al. 2000).

A great deal of research has been done: Wehner (1984) notes that the study of insect astronavigation began in 1911 when it was found that some ants used the Sun as a reference point in navigating home from their foraging grounds.

More recently, a team of Swedish and South African researchers showed that the iconic African ball-rolling dung beetle uses the Milky Way to navigate (e.g. el Jundi et al. 2016 and references therein)!

Protecting South Africa’s astronomical heritage