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The International Year of Astronomy: stargazing in 2009
29 January 2009 / 02:32

[Dateline: Vienna | Author: UNOV/Division for Management]

IYA logo When did you last look up at the night sky? Does someone in your household own a telescope? Do you know the difference between a star and a planet?

These might seem like easy questions. However, with the number of young people choosing to study astronomy and related sciences (such as physics and mathematics) declining, it is likely that in the future fewer and fewer people will be able to answer such questions confidently.

Hans Haubold, Senior Programme Officer at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) ventures that part of the reason why these sciences are attracting less interest than they used to is that more youths "seem to tend towards economics, banking and politics. Maybe it’s because there are so many problems in the world today, many young people think that astronomy is irrelevant."

Mazlan Othman, Director of the Office, also sees a problem in the fact that science does not promise the same kind of remuneration as jobs in finance do, and many parents who have to pay for their children’s further education "want a return on their investment."  

In addition, science in general (with the exception of the life sciences) seems to be suffering from an image problem. Othman says: "When I was young, science was seen as exciting and it gave status. It was very inspiring, there was this sense of awe."

In order to reawaken in all people the wonder with which the early stargazers looked at the night sky and to "rediscover our place in the universe," the General Assembly has proclaimed 2009 the International Year of Astronomy (A/RES62/200).  

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) are spearheading efforts to organize awareness-raising events that will tickle the curiosity of young and old, men and women, in rich and poor countries. Many other organizations, including the Office for Outer Space Affairs, will be involved in such activities.

The year 2009 was chosen because it marks the 400th anniversary of modern astronomy, a science that began when Galileo first started to take notes about what he was seeing through his telescope. Much has happened since 1609. The atmosphere enveloping the Earth has become cluttered with satellites, most of which point at the Earth’s surface and are used for communication, weather forecasting and tracking the movement of people and objects on the Earth’s surface through global positioning system (GPS) technologies. 

Haubold has an idea for demonstrating the magnitude of the contribution that such technologies make to our daily lives: "I’d like to switch all the satellites off. There would be no communication, we would be sitting here in silence."

In Othman's opinion, "the biggest impact of astronomy has been on education.”  Astronomy is often used in primary schools to introduce children to a range of other topics. For example, looking at the Moon or Jupiter’s rings can lead to discussions about energy, time, motion, not to mention the more philosophical questions of the origins of the universe and humanity.

Othman points out that astronomy has led to the development of calendars and clocks. In turn, these have hugely influenced geography and cartography. Part of the reason why Othman was attracted to astronomy was because of its aesthetic quality: "All of astronomy is beauty."  

In fact, as far as she is concerned, "astronomy has never been about economic returns."

And, to all who think that gawking at the stars solves none of today’s crises, Haubold says: "Instead of fighting, everyone should get a telescope. I would assign everyone a galaxy and everyone would be too busy to go to war. There is still so much to discover."

More information

International Year of Astronomy to reignite wonder, promote peace – UN agency

International Year of Astronomy 2009 web site