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So your friend asks: Why spend money on astronomy? What's the use?

by Sarah Scoles


So your friend asks, not necessarily in a hostile manner but possibly in a hostile manner, "Can you tell me why the things people see in telescopes should mean anything to me? Why is it so important that we spend my money on it?"

I spent a good deal of time thinking about this question, as there are the usual-suspect answers (given below), but I wanted to try to come up with something a little more satisfying, and I wasn't sure what, if anything, I would come up with.

Though I do believe in the inherent importance of studying and understanding the universe, it does cost  money—public money—the question “Why is this an important and useful pursuit, to me?” is valid and deserves more of an answer than, “Because we’re expanding the base of human knowledge, which is the most human pursuit possible, and thus pursuing it makes us super human."

Most sciences have a more direct link than astronomy to our lives on Earth, since astronomy by definition is the study of stuff not on Earth.

Is astronomy not relevant to our daily lives, or is it relevant differently, or does the answer depend on who you are?

Why is astronomy important, and worth the money, to people who are not astronomers?
I’m not going to count “for the pursuit of pure, pure knowledge” as an answer. While it is an answer, and one that some people find valid, not all people--including many who pay for it--do. Additionally, this particular answer stops delving deeper, because it implies that it could be the only answer of any value, or the only noble answer. 

The usual answers:

  1. It's a lot less than the defense budget.

  2. It stimulates the growth of technology, leading to innovations that can be used in industry to benefit people.

  3. Humans have always looked at the sky and been inspired.

  4. Astronomy answers fundamental questions--Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? Are we alone? If not, do extraterrestrial civilizations have an HBO equivalent?

My response to Point 1:
What isn't?

My response to Point 2:
Yes, that's true, but it is not necessarily the fastest or most economically efficient way to improve lives. While innovations do come about while doing scientific research for scientific research's sake, more innovations that are more directly applicable to human life might occur when the money is spent directly to that end. However, science may push technology in directions it may not have gone otherwise, we don't know how our current technological landscape would look without that push.

My response to Points 3 and 4:
Astronomy can inspire, and can answer fundamental questions. But that is not always the case in day-to-day, bread-and-butter research. Researchers often investigate small, extremely specific questions that people outside of a given subfield don't even know exist.

Why is modern research so often hyperfocused?

One bite at a time.


  1. In order to answer large questions, you have to split them into small ones. See: that riddle about how to eat an elephant.

  2. The more obvious aspects of a given topic have likely been researched already, given how long we've been dancing with the stars. In order to do original research, it's often necessary to zero in on a narrow problem and pick apart (and put together) its details.

  3. To survive as a researcher, you must publish papers. To publish a paper, you must have something new to say. To have something new to say, you must treadwhere there are no tracks.

Is there a general "use" for these niche-market astronomical questions?

Given that I write for a blog called "Smaller Questions," it is probably apparent that I think smaller, detail-oriented questions are important. And I do. Answering these questions is the only way to jigsaw our way to an understanding of the larger universe. But are they each important on their own? It's easy to think so when you spend 8-9 hours of your day sitting at a desk typing code and thinking about them, but what if you don't?

From a pure knowledge perspective, the questions are important on their own. Every new thing we know about the universe is something new we know about the universe. And that's cool. But how cool is it to know there was a tidal disruption-like X-ray flare from the quiescent galaxy SDSS J120136.02+300305.5?

Let's all be honest with each other: it is not that cool that this particular flare took place in this particular galaxy.

The context of the question and its answer are more important than their content.

That galaxy needs more flare.

This flare is cool because of what we can infer from it about other, similar events and their causes. And then, further, what those causes and effects imply about the principles governing the universe. And then, further, what those principles imply about our interactions with the universe.

Can all niche-market astronomical questions be contextualized in a satisfying way?
You know, I'm not totally sure. 


However, the universe did lead to us. Its course--set by the conditions at its beginning and the laws to which mass and energy are subject--somehow led to our puny existence and our puny ability to try to understand how we came to punily exist, and in what kind of strange place, and how that strange place's conditions led to us, and our ability to try to...etc. In circles.

Here's why astronomy is important and useful to everyone:
The laws that underlie the universe, or the theories that explain why and how the laws work, cannot be figured out just studying things on Earth. We have to look at big things, small things, dense things, diffuse things, massive things, massless things, far-away things, farther-away things, hot things, cold things--we can't get all that in a lab. We can't get it at the bottom of an ocean. We can't get it under a microscope. And while the laws that govern the rest of the universe are the same as the laws that govern us out here on the ranch, we can't see those laws' effects by just looking at how grass waves on the prairie. 

This, still, is not an entirely satisfactory answer.

What has astronomy ever done for you?

You can live your whole life and be very happy and never have a handle on the electromagnetic implications of extragalactic tidal disruptions. You can, in fact, be very, very happy. And it doesn't really matter that the theories that might allow you to predict the effects of extragalactic tidal disruption are the same as the ones that keep satellites in orbit, because the satellites are already in orbit whether or not we know about the tidal disruptions.

So what is the value of modern research in astronomy to a person who is not an astronomer (and thus is not compensated with money or prestige for understanding chaon condensates)?
I still stand by the idea that astronomy puts our earthly experience into context, and can inspire us to think beyond just-us and just-now. I think that perspective is valuable. But I also think that the awe-inspiring aspects of astronomy are not apparent unless discoveries are put into the context of the fundamental questions to whose answers they are contributing. And that doesn't always happen. It often doesn't happen.

Here's a set of counter-questions:
Why do we read and write fiction? Why do we like concertos? Why do we listen to Ke$ha? Why are people famous for wrapping islands in pink fabric? While (granted) those things cost the tax-paying public less money than astronomy, the questions, philosophically, are the same as "Why do we study astronomy?" We like Ke$ha and short stories and astronomy (or maybe that's just me) because they illuminate some part of our existence as humans.

Astronomy, at its best, is like a good book: it helps us understand what it means to be ourselves--in the world, in the universe, living in a world that is in the universe.


One way or another, I'm gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha.

And also we like Ke$ha and short stories and astronomy because we have climbed to the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and can afford to without risking death by saber-toothed tiger.

Perhaps this answer does not warrant lots of money being spent on questions that are never discussed outside of tiny academic circles. But if the questions, and their answers, are brought out of their hiding places, and if the questioners say to the public, "Here's how the questions I'm asking apply to the questions you, yourself, are asking," everyone--from principal investigator to principal of PS137--would benefit. 


ResearchBlogging.orgDavoust, E. (1995). The purpose of astronomy Vistas in Astronomy, 39 (3), 315-322 DOI: 10.1016/0083-6656(95)00087-4 

R. D. Saxton, A. M. Read, P. Esquej, S. Komossa, S. Dougherty, P. Rodriguez-Pascual, D. Barrado (2012). A tidal disruption-like X-ray flare from the quiescent galaxy SDSS J120136.02+300305.5 
Astronomy and Astrophysics



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Reader Comments (7)

Or you could just say what I say: "I find that stars are more interesting than most people."

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

True, but the question was about why people in general, even those who don't find stars more interesting than most people, might think astronomy is useful (or not).

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Scoles

Because it's the search for the truth, for where we came from, for where we can go next if Earth eventually gets overpopulated, trashed etc.

The latter may appeal to religious folks, because of God's divine command to procreate. It's easy even for them to realize that resources on Earth are limited and if we are to continue obeying that commandment, we should move on...

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternamekuseijin

I spend all day answering questions about the tiniest things on Earth and how beautiful our existence really is... and I find it absolutely fascinating to hear about how we could not be the only ones in this place. I agree with you that it provides context to our existence.

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke N.

Lots of great reasons for supporting astronomy, not the least of which is that extragalactic tidal interactions are very cool, but there is another: you never know where basic science can lead. For example, Einstein did not set out to invent GPS when he developed general and special relativity, yet you couldn't have GPS navigation without those theories. Nor was he trying to invent an auto-flush toilet when he figured out the photoelectric effect, yet it is the basis for those, automatic doors, and more! It just so happens that Einstein was trying to figure out how the universe worked and it led to some of the great conveniences of modern life. On top of that, as you mentioned, basic sciences, like astronomy, are cheap to support so a small investment can have a huge payoff; Einstein was working as a patent clerk at the time and so wasn't even getting paid to develop those theories (of course, he doesn't collect royalties for GPS units either).

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterD.J. Pisano

Very good point! Einstein's great-grandchildren should be getting some royalties ;)

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Scoles

One answer: astronomy enables us to lookout for that rock that's going to wipe us all from the face of the earth if we don't do something about it.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

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