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Why does astronomy matter to society?

The following is an excerpt from the International Astronomical Union.

Although the study of astronomy has provided a wealth of tangible, monetary and technological gains, perhaps the most important aspect of astronomy is not one of economical measure. Astronomy has and continues to revolutionize our thinking on a worldwide scale. In the past, astronomy has been used to measure time, mark the seasons, and navigate the vast oceans. As one of the oldest sciences astronomy is part of every culture’s history and roots. It inspires us with beautiful images and promises answers to the big questions. It 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.

Several reports in the US (National Research Council, 2010) and Europe (Bode et al., 2008) indicate that the major contributions of astronomy are not just the technological and medical applications (technology transfer), but a unique perspective that extends our horizons and helps us discover the grandeur of the Universe and our place within it. On a more pressing level, astronomy helps us study how to prolong the survival of our species. For example, it is critical to study the Sun’s influence on Earth’s climate and how it will affect weather, water levels etc. Only the study of the Sun and other stars can help us to understand these processes in their entirety. In addition, mapping the movement of all the objects in our Solar System, allows us to predict the potential threats to our planet from space. Such events could cause major changes to our world, as was clearly demonstrated by the meteorite impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013.

On a personal level, teaching astronomy to our youth is also of great value. It has been proven that pupils who engage in astronomy-related educational activities at a primary or secondary school are more likely to pursue careers in science and technology, and to keep up to date with scientific discoveries (National Research Council, 1991). This does not just benefit the field of astronomy, but reaches across other scientific disciplines.

Astronomy is one of the few scientific fields that interacts directly with society. Not only transcending borders, but actively promoting collaborations around the world. In the following paper, we outline the tangible aspects of what astronomy has contributed to various fields.