Welcome to the International Year of Astronomy 2009!
IYA2009 is a global effort, initiated by the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO, with participating organizations ranging from NASA, the American Astronomical Society, the European Space Agency, and likely the astronomy department of your local university.
I first heard about IYA2009 thanks to the tireless promotion of Dr. Pamela Gay of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and AstronomyCast. I had the good fortune to speak with Dr. Gay herself last year at Dragon*Con, and she conveyed such exceptional enthusiasm for this event that I knew it had to be important.
Events for the Year of Astronomy are planned all over the world. There will be the usual conferences and meetings for the professional astronomers, but there will also be myriad museum exhibits, planetarium shows, television programs, and observation events open to the public.
Don’t we already know pretty much everything we need to know about the Earth? Why study astronomy? Space is empty. It’s dark. There’s nothing of interest except for stars and dust.
Besides, it’s exceptionally unlikely that barring enormous advances in rocketry in the next few decades any of us will leave the biosphere of Earth. Throughout our lifetimes, space travel will consist of Earth orbit, the Moon, and if we’re lucky, the neighboring planets of the Solar System (most likely Mars).
What separates humanity from the animals is our exploratory nature. Humans have always sought the next frontier, only satisfied once they have completely exhausted that which the previous frontier could give. Space is, as the voices of William Shatner and Patrick Stewart told television viewers week after week, the final frontier.
Pragmatic physicists love space because it is the only almost perfectly pure physics laboratory we know. It gives us the opportunity to examine what happens when matter interacts over huge time, distance, and energy scales. On Earth a very long-running experiment might last ten years. (The absolute longest-running experiment I can think of is approaching its eightieth birthday.)
By observing what happens in space we can watch the results of billions of years of interactions. Even better, we can literally look backwards in time. The light reaching us from the most distant quasars is at least a billion years old — that is, we’re seeing the quasars as they were a billion years ago.
By studying astronomy, we can also begin to learn about the origins of life on Earth. How did life begin? We’re taught in our science classes from a young age that the conditions needed to support life are very precarious. But how did we even get that far? Which chemical reactions occurred at just the right temperature and pressure to allow life to form? The goal of astrobiology is to answer these questions.
Finally, studying space gives us perspective. We humans are an amazingly self-centered lot. It’s worth remembering that we are such a tiny part of the universe. This famous photograph from Voyager 1, later entitled “Pale Blue Dot”, shows the Earth as just that:
That tiny pixel in the center right of the image is the Earth, as seen from 3.7 billion miles away.
I look at that image and realize that no matter how bad my day may have been, there is so much more than just me. There’s so much more than all of us. While this might make some people feel insignificant, it makes me realize exactly how special and lucky we are to live on this beautiful planet.
It is in our interest and in our nature to learn about the black skies above. Take the opportunity this year to renew or initiate your love of the cosmos.