April 24, 2024

Why we need astronomy now more than ever

People often ask me what sparked my fascination with astronomy. Of course, the short answer is NASA’s highly successful efforts to land Americans on the Moon. But there was also something else. I grew up in a small town where, after a rocket launch from Cape Kennedy, all I had to do was go out into the front yard for a beautiful view of the Moon, Venus, and the brightest stars in the early morning sky. night.

This year, I spent most of the North American winter well below the equator, in Chile and Argentina; first at an astronomy conference in Chile and then visiting radio telescopes south of Buenos Aires.

I also had time to enjoy the South American summer, which led me to think a little about the fact that we live on a planet that precesses (or changes its axis of rotation) as it orbits its star in a way that gives our planet a stable and predictable climate over long periods of time. A fact that is indisputably essential to life as we know it here. As a result, I started thinking about the role that planetary science and astronomy play in our everyday lives.

Are people who live in areas that have wonderful views of the sky, such as the deserts of the American Southwest, Hawaii, South Africa, Australia, Chile, and Argentina, inherently more interested in astronomy?

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is a true haven for astronomy in a way that very few Earth-based locations could be. It is blessed with extraordinarily clear skies and relatively little light pollution. Chile and Argentina also have a window onto our entire galaxy, the Milky Way, in a way that is not possible in the Northern Hemisphere.

Clear skies also generate interest in astronomy

Estela Perez, a professor of biochemistry and chemistry at the National University Andrés Bello in Santiago, says her passion for astronomy was stimulated as a child by the clear night skies over several large lakes in southern Chile.

All over Chile, even in Santiago, we go out of our houses or apartments and see the stars and use phone apps to identify stars we don’t know about, says Perez, who is now locally active in public astronomical outreach. However, despite the clear skies locally, she says professional astronomers in Chile still need more observing time at the international telescopes operating throughout the north of the country.

Asking the Big Questions

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Santiago’s Parque Bicentenario, as people played paddle tennis and exercised their dogs with endless ball fetches, I sat and watched our nearest star disappear behind nearby Mount Manquehue. And I started to wonder about the bigger picture of it all.

Once again, I was moved to realize that our short lives are difficult to comprehend in a cosmos that exists across such large areas of space and time. And the universe remains largely incomprehensible even to our best theoretical physicists.

These astronomical questions are ones that each of us struggles with daily. But neither religion nor one’s philosophy can ever fully answer the enigma that is our existence, much less our place in the cosmos.

Astronomy is universal, however.

Even the least astronomically literate look up at the night sky and realize there is something beyond them and this Earth. Dung beetles, seals, and even the albatross also know the celestial sphere in ways that still surprise and perplex.

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