The End of Astronomy?

9 05 2011

Astronomy as we know it…. Is it the beginning of the end?

The Monty Python foot from the skyWe are creatures that respond to change, to uncertainty, to excitement. In a society where either the media, or the filters we create around us, cater to our most basic desires, what is the role of awe, wonder and curiosity about the vast Universe around us?

Some would point to the immense interest in technology that today’s youth display as testament to them being the most scientific generation ever. But i-pads, fads and widgets are the mothers of necessity rather than invention. When you strip away the social aspects of technology, just how motivated by science are they? Is there an urge to piece together the building blocks of reality? Unweaving the tapestry of creation in which our lives are woven, if you will.

So perhaps my title should be The End of Interest in Astronomy?, but that isn’t quite as catchy.

yawningAn EU survey highlights that the majority of the younger population (15-25) doesn’t see the sky above them as something really worth knowing about. Only 1 in 5 note significant interest in astronomy. The interest in technology and the environment is 200% higher. Even more disturbingly, while only 11% are disinterested in environmental issues, almost four times as many are disinterested in astronomy.

wrestlingFor those of us that work in astronomy these numbers are a punch in the stomach. Have we overestimated public interest arising from inspiring words by Carl Sagan years ago? Or, taking a positive view, perhaps the youth of North America are fundamentally more interested in the heavens above than our European cousins? While a N. American survey is sadly lacking, some countries, Latvia for example, show an interest in astronomy that is four times the European average.

But in my darkest moments, I wonder, could astronomers themselves be partly to blame for these interest levels? Have we just not engaged people the way we should?

The true measure of astronomy’s value is how it contributes to our society. While there is plenty of data to suggest it has many economic benefits, astronomy has given us a cultural legacy of immense proportions – it has taught humankind its true place in the universe. As some have said, to understand the Earth’s value, we actually had to leave it.

Bad analogiesSo is the lack of interest apparent in the youth of Europe just a matter of communication? Have astronomers failed to explain themselves and their work in ways that the public can easily understand? Are the analogies we use failing to inspire? The following xkcd strip beautifully explains the challenges we face.

For many years I saw research in very black and white fashion. I subscribed to the idea that if I couldn’t explain the value of what I was doing in a paragraph, I wasn’t doing anything useful. It’s a deceptively appealing concept that makes things sound like they have their place. No arguing, no dilly-dallying, you can explain why it’s useful or it simply isn’t.

grandparentsBut just try explaining General Relativity in a paragraph, or Quantum Theory. You can’t just sit granny/grandpa (assuming they aren’t physicists of course) and walk them through the details in 30 seconds – there are entire books that try to explain those concepts. Yet, these complex ideas underpin some of the most critical technologies we have today – think GPS or semiconductors. And don’t cop-out by saying the technological & economic applications mean those are important.  Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, developed in the 1600’s, was separated by centuries from commercial applications in communications satellites.

So communicating ideas has always been a problem. Are the portents of doom perhaps then more driven by the idea that astronomy research is somehow becoming less relevant?

A number of prominent astronomers (e.g. Andy Lawrence) have written about how the questions of astronomy are becoming progressively tougher to answer. And how, as we push back the boundaries of our knowledge, and delve into the immensity of details underlying the universe, the questions we can truly answer are becoming more specialist.

It’s true that we’ve answered the easy questions. We’ve figured out the geometry of the Universe, how galaxies cluster and some of the more simple aspects of galaxy formation and stellar structure. Many of these things could be explained quickly and succinctly.

GaiaBut there are a great many challenges ahead. The Gaia mission to develop a 3-d map of a billion stars in our galaxy, will revolutionize our knowledge of stellar motions, and despite decades of study we still don’t have a comprehensive understanding of how stars interact with spiral structure. This is an immense challenge.

jwstHubble Telescope’s long talked-about replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope is also coming in 2015. We’ll see the first galaxies in our Universe and uncover evidence of the earliest giant black holes. Complemented by 30m class ground-based telescopes, such as the TMT or E-ELT, the light-capturing power of telescopes will rise by an order of magnitude. The SKA radio telescope, will reveal the Universe at radio wavelengths in ways we can only imagine today. And tantalizingly, evidence of alien life might possibly be found with these instruments.

So when I was asked, “What will Canada lose if we don’t invest in astronomy?” I responded: “It’s simple. When scientists announce another planetary system with life has been found, and answer one of the most profound questions humanity has asked, do you want a Canadian to have any chance of making that announcement?”

But aside from answering amazing science questions, our challenge as professional astronomers is to reach out and communicate about the incredible science we get to do. And in turn, to pass on our awe at how amazing the Universe around us really is.

We aren’t even close to the end of astronomy. The Universe has more up its sleeve than we’ve yet to imagine.

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8 responses

9 05 2011
Tavi Greiner

I believe that the biggest challenge to encouraging interest in astronomy is in combating light pollution. How can we expect anyone to have an initial curiosity about that which they can not see? Images and talks are not enough; in fact, for young minds, even the most spectacular images and greatest talks often give the impression of an impossibly distant land in some grand fairy tale. I am convinced that if our younger generation could better relate to the stars if they could actually see them.

9 05 2011
ecogirlcosmoboy

I totally agree that it’s a big issue! Good point Tavi! Indeed I was trying to find some stats on the populations resident in cities just last night but somehow it got lost while I was addressing concerns voiced by colleagues.

10 05 2011
Michael Merrifield

The Gaia mission to develop a 3-d map of a billion stars in our galaxy, will revolutionize our knowledge of stellar motions, and despite decades of study we still don’t have a comprehensive understanding of how stars interact with spiral structure. This is an immense challenge.

A number of years ago, I had the great privilege of interviewing Adriaan Blaauw for a television programme. He was one of the founding fathers of ESO, and took a major role in Gaia’s predecessor astrometric satellite, Hipparcos. Interestingly, he had very mixed feelings about this kind of enormous database, expressing the concern that a huge amount of money had been invested in collecting the data, but that we would barely have skimmed the cream of science from this investment before the next exciting facility had come along and we would abandon those data and move on. Even where science was being done, his view was that astronomy suddenly becoming so “data rich” was stifling imaginative thought, and that there was a strong tendency just to do simple-minded searches for correlations rather than the kind of carefully-crafted experiments that are needed when data is more hard won.

Unfortunately, his polemic did not fit in with the programme that was being made about the Milky Way, so sadly ended up on a cutting room floor somewhere in the BBC. I have often thought about it since, though, and am coming more and more around to his point of view. And even if we can make full use of these upcoming massive databases, I suspect that such large-scale open-cast data mining lacks the magic that will ever inspire the wider public.

10 05 2011
ecogirlcosmoboy

Thanks very much for those thoughts Mike. I can see where the thought that we have “too much data” might come from, and why that might not be a popular idea. Personally I’m very keen to see how Gaia can help us pick through the issue of transient recurrent spiral structure.

I really don’t know whether the public is concerned about whether we learn something through a triumph of thought (e.g. relativity) or data collection (e.g. Hubble expansion). I’m one of the “believers” in that I feel citizen science could be a real step forward (will LSST fulfill this promise in a way Galaxy Zoo can’t?) although without a crystal ball it’s tough to know what the ultimate payoffs will be.

10 05 2011
Michael Merrifield

I think it is no coincidence that the iconic picture for the Hubble expansion is of Edwin with a pipe clenched in his teeth operating the telescope apparently all on his own. It’s hard to excite the public about science by massive consortia, as it ceases to have the individual human element with which they can associate.

It is also clearly a massive cultural shift within our field. When thinking about graduate school, I was put off experimental particle physics because it already had very much that flavour. The attraction of astronomy was that one could have an idea, write a telescope proposal, make the observations, analyze them, and publish the answer to a problem, all within a timescale of around a year with a few colleagues. WIth a move to ever bigger science on fewer cutting-edge facilities, that model of astronomy is fading quite fast, and presumably the next generation attracted to the new reality is very different.

11 05 2011
ecogirlcosmoboy

Mike, I’m not sure I agree about the human element being the thing they associate with. Most work environments are very collaborative now (I think back to my own times working at a merchant bank and teams were a big thing there). People still seem to be interested in CERN/Fermilab although to be fair both of those organizations spend far more time thinking about outreach than we likely do. It’s all the more complex when they know they really can’t explain what they are doing with any nice pictures (we are at least lucky in that regard, although I can see how data mining might take that possibility away).

But if anything, I honestly believe astronomers (on the whole) are pretty good a realizing what the interesting problems are. Of course not everyone does, but I have hope that there are people with good noses out there that will make sure accessible stuff get’s done.

I completely agree we’re seeing a fundamental cultural shift in our field that is being compressed into a 15 year period. I see it in simulation work too. When I wrote my PhD I was responsible for pretty much all aspects of that code. Now with multi-physics modules you need large collaborations to do things. That also shifts the balance of power towards larger institutions as well, something that is rarely mentioned.

In relation to the cultural shift: I wrote an email response today to a young lady in high school interested in astronomy. I asked her if she felt she worked well in groups as that could be a big part of how well she does. But to be honest I think today’s generation is much more connected to their peers through media than certainly my generation was. It’s a gross generalization, but I tend to think they have a larger toolset for handling collaboration than GenX/Y and earlier generations.

11 05 2011
Michael Merrifield

The other interesting thing I have noticed as fallout from this cultural shift is the greater difficulty in spotting the talent in the next generation. When graduate students had largely been responsible for fairly small self-contained projects that they “owned,” one could get a reasonable sense of how self-propelled they were, and how good they were at all aspects of project management. Nowadays, postdoc applicants’ CVs are often made up solely of “small cog in large machine” content, which means they can demonstrate little by way of big-picture project management experience, and it is also quite hard to identify how much intellectual input they had made to their project where every paper has thirty established clever scientists backing them up.

It can get even harder with fellowship applications, where the applicants have invested so much in their involvement in a large project that they cannot afford to break away from it and have spent their entire early career working within a single large well-regulated consortium, which makes it very challenging to spot that vital spark of inspiration that fellowship panels are always on the look out for.

11 05 2011
ecogirlcosmoboy

On that I completely agree, and to be frank I’m having a hard time saying anything more in open access.

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