I love astronomy! I always have and always will. Maybe, because I grew up in Namibia, with its low light pollution and clear, brilliant skies, I found myself looking up more often than those living in large cities. Roughly 60% of people live in urban areas, and they are unable to see what I see. Others live under cloudy skies. I’m blessed. My environment shaped me in ways that I didn’t understand as a child, and I’m just wrapping my head around now. I’m pretty sure I would have loved astronomy no matter where I popped out – perhaps via a more circuitous path than the one that I followed. In this essay, I want to share my love and knowledge of the stars with you. I think most of you will find a nugget or two here that you can take away. I hope more of you will spend your time looking up, travelling to destinations where stargazing is possible, or find yourself visiting and supporting your local planetarium or observatory. If you do, then I’ll have succeeded.
In the course of history humans have continually utilised their knowledge of celestial bodies to define time, to navigate, to calculate tides and as a guide to the timing of certain activities such as planting and harvesting – but most of all to appreciate their place in the universe. “Who are we?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” are a few of the prevalent and burning questions we tend to ask about ourselves, and part of the answer lies in astronomy, whose ultimate goal it is to study and understand the universe and its fundamental laws.
The pursuit of astronomical studies stems from the natural human awe of a world larger than what the mind can readily envisage… the concept of the universe and questions relating to it simply boggle our intellects. Nearly each one of us harbours a more or less hazy idea of what the science of astronomy encompasses. In fact, it is all around us! From the observation of twinkling stars to the allure of meteor showers (shooting stars) and the different phases of the moon, the seasons, lunar and solar eclipses, or simply day succeeding night. Everything is a function of celestial mechanics; that is, how celestial bodies like the moon, planets and stars behave in relation to each other. Over the last centuries the science of astronomy has put these problems into context for us and changed our perception of the universe and all that exists within it.
As with all the sciences, boundaries are constantly being pushed. New technologies keep improving our understanding of the universe and how it affects life on Earth. Astronomers for instance monitor harmful radiation,
as well as meteorites and asteroids wandering out of the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars towards Earth by tracking the orbital paths of these bodies, one of which led to the extinction of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Also, technologies developed to study planetary bodies and the stars nowadays play an essential part in our daily lives. Satellites are indispensable in communication (e.g. cell phones, television, banking), navigation and reconnaissance (GPS), and weather forecasts, among other things. In the same way, astronomy has also made major contributions to medicine, optics and electronics. X-ray detectors, magnetic resonance imaging scanners, mirrors and amplifiers are just a few examples where medical diagnostics has profited from astronomical research.
Understanding our surroundings in space and the environment in general continues to help in predicting the destiny of our planet. A notable example is long- and short-term climate change. While short-term climate change (hundreds to thousands or even millions of years) is related to fluctuations of solar radiation – which in turn influence Earth’s magnetic field and incoming sunlight by causing significant rises or drops in temperature depending on prevalent conditions – the long-term climate on Earth (billions of years) will be decided by the life cycle of our central star, the sun. Therefore, it is imperative to study the sun’s role in climate change and other environmental factors as well as man’s contributions to this phenomenon in order to assess its implications for mankind.
Policy makers worldwide have been criticised for allocating billions of dollars to astronomical studies rather than the alleviation of poverty and other pressing issues facing our world. However, apart from forming the foundation of human civilization, astronomical research benefits humankind in many indirect and direct ways, as the above examples show. Astronomy is constantly advancing our intellect and human capabilities, thus also contributing to the development of technologies and methods which – among other areas – are also employed in the alleviation of poverty (e.g. food production).
Astronomy continues to inspire us daily through beautiful scenes of the sky and images while keeping our minds agile. As Marissa Rosenberg et al. wrote: “Astronomy acts as a window into the immense size and complexity of space, putting Earth into perspective and promoting global citizenship and pride in our home planet.”
Victoria Ndayambekwa Nakafingo