Astronomy – Why?

Astronomy – Why?
Astronomy is an ancient science, and today a popular profession and pastime. But what attracts people to astronomy? What's special about it? Here are some answers to this question in the words of astronomers through the ages.

Astronomy is beautiful
Nicolaus Copernicus is the revolutionary who suggested that the Sun stood still while the planets circled it. And he said of astronomy “The strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects. This is the discipline that deals with the universe's divine revolutions, the stars' motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings … for what is more beautiful than heaven?”

Modern amateur astronomer Mark VandeWettering declares “The Universe is beautiful not just at the 'aren't the twinkly lights beautiful?' but at every level: from the quantum mechanics that govern the motion of elementary particles to the largest galactic clusters. The fact that we can gain any understanding of how it all works is very alluring.”

Humans are driven by curiosity
Theoretical physicist David Gross wrote that “People, children, want to know what we're made out of, how it works, and why the universe is the way it is.”

Professor Maria Mitchell (1819-1899) noted that “The daily wants of the body do not require that we should say 'Give me the ways of wandering stars to know/ The depths of heaven above and earth below.'” Then she added, “But we have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.”

In his last paper, Edwin Hubble said, “We look out into the distances and strive to imagine the sort of world into which we are born… . But with increasing distance our knowledge fades, . . . until at the last dim horizon we search among ghostly errors of observations for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue. The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied and it will not be suppressed.”

Knowing the past
“When you look into space, at any star you care to mention,” writes an Irish blogger, “you are looking into history. You are . . . seeing the star as . . . it was when the photons of light left its photosphere . . . If you can find the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky, you are getting a picture of how it looked two million years ago. . . . History is about ourselves [and] astronomy opens history . . . by explaining the origins of our planet, our sun, our galaxy – even providing insights into our Universe and how it all started some 13 odd billion years ago.
Astronomy writer Richard Berry thinks that “It is a pity, in an age of rockets and space telescopes, that so few people have a direct acquaintance with the stars. Learning the stars and following their nightly courses across the sky brings a deep satisfaction born of familiarity with something both ancient and ageless.” And Robert Fulghum remembers “Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens…. My grandfather would say we're part of something incredibly wonderful – more marvelous than we imagine. My grandfather would say we ought to go out and look at it once in a while so we don't lose our place in it.”

Astronomy is uplifting
In 30 BCE Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “The contemplation of celestial things will make a man both speak and think more sublimely and magnificently when he descends to human affairs.”

Nineteen centuries later Henri Poincaré maintained that “Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand; …. It shows us how small is man's body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity . . . and enjoy its silent harmony.”

And in modern times physicist Stephen Hawking tells us, “To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”

We're part of the Universe
“We should do astronomy because it is beautiful and because it is fun. We should do it because people want to know. We want to know our place in the universe and how things happen,” wrote Nobel Prize winner John N. Bahcall.

Neil deGrasse Tyson maintains that “the cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.”

Physicist Lawrence Krauss links us all to the Universe, writing “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. . . . It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust."

And let's end with Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) whose three laws described the orbits of the planets: “We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens.”

Sources: Why do you love astronomy?

You Should Also Read:
Copernicus - the Revolution
Maria Mitchell
Johannes Kepler - His Life

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