Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Do you think astronomy is a useful science?

  1. Jan 1, 2004 #1
    Personnally I think astronomy, at the present time, is a waste of time for several reasons. The current resources allocated for astronomy range in the billions of dollars. Also the current minds working on astronomy could be doing something far more useful for society. For example we could put these resources in aiding the third world countries. And I don't see why we don't. I think astronomer's should pay more attention to what's around them than what's above. Of course there are mopre reasons, but i'm to lazy to write them down at the moment....

    Ultimately astronomy is a waste.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 1, 2004 #2
    Farady was asked in the 1830's "What is the point of your work with Electricity?

    He replied "What use is a baby?"

    Technological breakthroughs come about because Humans are inquisitive, not because someone has decided what is important and what isn't. Without Science we would all be living in third world countries as there would be no other alternative.
  4. Jan 1, 2004 #3


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member


    As to:

    "Also the current minds working on astronomy could be doing something far more useful for society."

    Any society that would corerce people from their career paths of choice into ones "more useful for society" is not a society worth supporting.
  5. Jan 1, 2004 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Funny thing is, the classical Communist countries, like the USSR and PRC, which sacrifice everything else to the party vision, have always found resources to support pure mathematics, astronomy, and "socially worthless" arts like classical music, ballet, and calligraphy. "There are more things (of worth) than are dreamed of in your philosophy".

    (edit) Except for the Great Leap Forward, which even the party congress now calls a deviation.
  6. Jan 1, 2004 #5
    Astronomers would be the first to see a giant rock headed for Earth. Pretty useful, I think.
  7. Jan 1, 2004 #6

    Great and what could we do about that giant rock headed towards earth, most likely nothing.
  8. Jan 1, 2004 #7
    Send Bruce Willis!
  9. Jan 2, 2004 #8
    That's why it's so good. More of us should be engaged in these useless endeavours, and less of us in the useful endeavours (which are mostly about exploiting or harming other people). The other thing, of course, is that what is considered useful, varies with culture and era. Why should I be constrained by cultural norms?

    So get out your telescopes and be useless!
  10. Jan 2, 2004 #9
    Send them all to the gulags!
  11. Jan 2, 2004 #10


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    But we do it. By subsidizing astronomy and not funding another branch of science, the government is essentially forcing people into astronomy. In a capitalist society, money does all the pushing and pulling. Subsidies, grants and tax breaks are how the government flexes its muscles.

    I believe in the value of basic research. I believe researchers do best doing what they love most. But the government's lavish support of astronomy out of step with its benefit is a self-perpetuating cycle. Spending money on it generates public interest in it which diverts good minds into it. The good minds lobby for funding and get it. This funding is not at the expense of social programs, or the defense budget - it is at the expense of other basic research initiatives.

  12. Jan 2, 2004 #11


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Athalus - Indeed it is difficult to allocate limited resources (money, manhours, etc.) when there are so many problems to contend with in the world. But it does not have to be "either-or". We can do astronomy (and other sciences) AND try to solve the world's problems at the same time. I would say that the US's economic success (and therefore our higher standard of living as compared to empoverished countries) is hand-in-hand with our science & technology. Astronomy is one aspect of that success.

    other tidbits...Did you know that...

    - the hole in the ozone layer was discovered by astronomers? (something they found while doing research about Venus)

    - global warming was a problem discovered by astronomers? (hmm...I forget if that was just in part...I'll have to check)

    - at least part of the team that figured out that nuclear winter would be a global catastrophe (thereby altering policies on the use of nukes) were astronomers?

    - astronomers transformed human understanding about the universe and our place in it?

    - solar astronomy is invaluable for protecting our satellite network (predicting the next solar flare, etc.)

    Oh, and about that asteroid thing...there are measures that can be taken to deflect an incoming object. The success of such an attempt would depend on the amount of lead time (the sooner you know, the better). By the time a non-astronomer sees it, it's too late to do anything.
  13. Jan 2, 2004 #12


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    The government does fund other branches of science. (but I assume you know that already)

    Note that a huge chunk of NASA's budget (half or more) is not for astronomy as a science, but for the shuttle, ISS, and aero-space tech programs.

    There are very few professional astronomers in the US (1,000?) and the world (the International Astronomers Union has only 8,600 astronomers from in 84 countries). Jobs are tough to come by.

    lavish? [?]
    the ISS/shuttle/aero programs perhaps, but not the science of astronomy itself...those programs keep getting cut back
  14. Jan 3, 2004 #13
    completely off subject...

    so compared to the debate you people hve just come up with, this seems a meaningless, self centred question - but I have a general interest in astrology, cosmology, and infact, most of theoretical physics (which you seem to have a knoweldge in) and am in my first year of 6th form college - does any one know of any companies which will fund further education in these sciences, maybe take committed people on as trainees or run dayleave system, or programmes similar to that seen in other non science based career choices

  15. Jan 5, 2004 #14


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    not if you confuse astrology with astronomy! :wink:

    but seriously, try starting a new topic for this question & you should get some good replies.

  16. Jan 5, 2004 #15
    The interest in astronimical knowledge is simply a result of our eager to discover. Not that we will use it to anything specific, but humans are born with a mind that wants to learn and explore. It comes naturally. Usefulness irrelevant in my opinion.
  17. Jan 6, 2004 #16


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member


    oh and BTW, a not insignificant part of the funding for astronomy comes from private sources; for example, the two largest optical telescopes on Earth are called Keck I and Keck II, after none other ...

    Historically (at least until last century), most astronomy was privately financed.

    Not to get into a 'my use of tax-payer dollars is better than yours' debate, but Athalus and confused_ian, how would you go about defining the allocation of the dollars in the 'Science' part of any country's budget? What would your program be for deciding the overall size of that budget?
  18. Jan 7, 2004 #17
    Is astronomy a useful science?

    Let's begin with navigation. Until recently, astronomical observation was the only way for ships and airplanes to know where they were when traveling overseas. Now they are guided by global positioning systems also succesfully placed in orbit thanks to astronomical science.

    General physics owes many of its basic principles and laws to the research done by Galileo and Newton through telescopes, such as the concepts of inertia and formulas for gravity, understanding of motion, effec ts of friction (by studying objects in space not subject to air resistance etc.).

    Relativistic physical concepts such as the speed and nature of light are verified and tested using astronomy and knowledge gained through astronomocal observatiions.

    Our whole basis for telling time and dates are based on astronomical observation. Future use of millisecond pulsars may be more accurate for keeping time than atomic clocks.

    Chemistry owes the discovery of Helium to astronomy.

    Knowledge and prediction of solar activity is important to communications on earth as well as satelite communication and as such is funded by the U.S. Air Force.

    Medical imaging (xrays etc) owe many advances to astronomy. For example techniques learned through reconstruction of flawed hubble image aides in earlier detection of tumors in mammograms.

    Interferometry (a science developed through astronomy) is used to map ice in the ocean for ship safety, aides in weather predictions and is being tested to try and predict earthquakes.

    Lastly, if it wasn't for the science of Astronomy, the earth would still be considered the center of the universe. The diminishment of the earth from the center of the universe to a mere part of a much larger picture, opened the door for the advancement of all science.

    Yes, astronomy has value.
  19. Jan 7, 2004 #18


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I did lump the shuttle and space station in with astronomy. It was wrong to do so. I have been in a few discussions about them lately and went on automatic pilot.

    Eliminating those white elephants, I would still argue the "usefulness" of spending money on astronomy. I would not argue the value though. There is a bit of a distinction. It is a fine line, but I think this is just where that line is drawn.

  20. Jan 7, 2004 #19


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Certainly, this could be a big debate. Although the practical usefulness of pure research is not always apparent, time and time again, useful things come out of it. The trick is figuring out how much money to allocate to practical research vs. the more esoteric stuff.
  21. Jan 15, 2004 #20
    astronomy a waste?

    Actually, it is a waste if all you can count is pennies.
    However, from the perspective of life here on earth; all humankind's need to explore; the need to grow, learn, and excel beyond what can be felt, touched, seen, etc...; the need to belong to something greater than what we can observe, it is imperative.
    One must ask the question though-
    What are you doing to actually make a contribution to humanity?
    Are you feeding the poor, visiting the sick, prisoners, etc...?
    Have you sacrificed all that you have to make this planet a better place to live? Is your choice of careers dedicated to making this a better place to live?
    The point of exploration towards the cosmos is what drives our economy, and our dreams. Just keep in mind that what gives us computers, and all of our electronics is the research done for space travel from years ago and today.
    What about Kevlar, portable battery powered tools, modern sunglass technology, etc...? Anyone on this BBoard could give an endless list of technologies derived from astronomical research. Geez, go to BEST BUY, and look around.
    Then we could also state that the work the astronauts on Columbia were doing back in February of last year was of no value. However, I'm sure that most of the planet's population would disagree with that, as was borne out in the news.
    I remember a day-- 1960's-- when my dad was an electronics engineer when the only electronic's work was the defense/space industries. There were no other industries that existed to give him work. Now, there are innumerable industries-- all begun to understand the universe we live in.
    Can you honestly tell me that you do not find the images sent back by Hubble to absolutely awe inspiring? If so, I pity you, and feel sorry that your ability to experience joy with such indescribable beauty is so tarnished.
    So, I put it to you that astronomical research is in fact an absolute necessity for our lives. Without it, dreams would fail, and without dreams, vision for the future would fail, and as a wise king once stated it-- "where there is no vision, the people perish."
    Perhaps you need once again to step out into a dark mountain meadow during a new moon, and look up. Try counting just a few stars. If you can honestly get past 100, I'd be awfully surpised. And not for a lack of being able to count. And it cannot be done in rage to spite me, or others who hold to my opinion. Remember, even the likes of Einstien took a few moments to enjoy nature's wonder.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?

Similar Discussions: Do you think astronomy is a useful science?