How to "do" astronomy
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
Andrew Tran, University of Georgia '23
Long ago, astronomical and scientific advancements were often made spontaneously and in unlikely circumstances. A curious philosopher could look into the sky with a telescope and make a remarkable discovery. A budding genius who was struggling to find a teaching job could have discovered the fundamental laws of light and spacetime in a tiny patent office. A young student in quarantine from the plague was able to make incredible discoveries in the science of optics and prisms.
The Helix Nebula. Credit: ESO
These days, things are a bit different. A fair amount of what’s in the sky has already been discovered, and most people are already familiar with basic, fundamental ideas about space. In general, the origins and history of astronomy have created an idea that to “do” astronomy requires one to pack your camping supplies, telescope, and then drive into the middle of nowhere to sky watch.
Information moves faster now. Technology is growing rapidly and data is constantly moving back and forth. Advancements in computing and engineering are supplementing the sciences in amazing ways. The availability of knowledge through a medium like the internet is creating wider access to astronomy topics. Because of all that, “doing” astronomy has taken a different meaning today. A professor at a university using raw data of the observations taken by a $50 million dollar telescope in a different country to conduct a statistical analysis and produce a theoretical model is also considered an “astronomer”. The engineer that maintains that expensive telescope, or the technician running the software for the observatory, are both also involved in astronomy. The astronomy teacher at a high school or the enthusiast who has read 100 astronomy books can arguably be considered “doing” astronomy, too.
Social media is allowing for more communication, too. Back then, to be a science communicator, it probably would have required you to be on TV, like Carl Sagan. Today, science communication can be done in dozens of different ways, be it blogging, creating for a YouTube channel, hosting a podcast, posting on Instagram, or even making videos on TikTok. Anyone who participates in this could be considered “doing” astronomy too, if that’s the focus of their content.
Do you notice the pattern? It goes back to the definition of astronomy: “a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena” (Wikipedia). There’s no rule that says you need to venture out into the middle of nowhere (although, this is still fun to do!). To participate in astronomy, all you need is a burning enthusiasm to explore something larger than your everyday life, and the desire to spread and share that enthusiasm with others around you. If you love astronomy, you may or may not go into a career relating to it, but regardless of your choice, astronomy is something you will be connected to for the rest of your life.
“We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.”
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson