With a dish* of incredible new telescopes under construction — from the SKA in Australia and Africa to the James Webb Space Telescope — the era of Big Astronomy is upon us.
For one thing, it’s a “gateway drug” for all sciences: you draw students in with cosmic wonder and then segue to other disciplines. Modern astronomy involves physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, geology, some serious computer science — and if you include human space exploration, then add medicine, psychology and nutrition — all overlapping and cross-pollinating.
Here’s an example. Since the first was discovered in 1988, more than 2000 exoplanets have been observed around distant stars, with thousands more awaiting confirmation. Now, exoplanets are very hard to spot directly, so astronomers observe the star itself, watching for changes in brightness, speed or position due to an exoplanet’s orbit. Some very precise and clever physics translates these dips and wiggles into the planet’s mass and orbital radius.
But there’s great chemistry here too. Astronomers use spectroscopy — measuring the intensity of different frequencies of light — to learn which planets are barren, rocky lumps, and which are crusted with ice or blanketed by an atmosphere.
Enter the biologists. If you can see a planet’s composition, maybe you can spot some basic building blocks of life: oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, methane and other “biosignature” gases. Fuelled by exoplanet data, astrobiology is heating up.
Then there are the great spin-offs for society from astronomical research, like CCDs, distributed computing and GPS. And WiFi, for which radio astronomers at Australia’s CSIRO hold some crucial patents through their research. So far they have extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from major IT companies like Intel and Microsoft that use wireless internet standards.
While it’s a valid argument, clearly funding astronomy isn’t an efficient R&D process to bring new IT technologies to market. As Carl Sagan allegedly remarked, "You don't need to go to Mars to cure cancer."
So we’re left with one very simple and honest reason why we do astronomy: awe.
Comedian Eddie Izzard once joked about the overuse of awesome to describe everything in life. As in, "Hey, try these awesome hotdogs".
The thing is, words have meanings. If awesome can describe a hotdog, what’s left when you encounter something that inspires actual, real, honest-to-goodness awe?
Here’s a test. Look at the picture above of the Andromeda galaxy that NASA took last year. The resolution is so good you can see hundreds of millions of individual stars — yes, stars in another galaxy. You can check out the full-resolution image at NASA's Hubble Telescope website, and I really recommend you do that: go have a zoom around to see just how much detail Hubble captured in that picture.
Now: look again. Between those stars you can also make out other, more distant, entire galaxies behind Andromeda.
Take a moment to take all that in.
Do you feel it? A tingling sensation in your brain?
That feeling is why we gape at the night sky, why we watch Brian Cox and Maggie Aderin-Pocock on TV. It’s why we have the European Space Agency and NASA. It’s why we, as a species, are compelled to do astronomy.
Because the more we study the universe, the more we find that is truly — literally — awesome.
* I’m proposing dish as the collective noun for telescopes. Got a better one?
I felt so strongly about the Hubble Andromeda picture, I made a video: