The Economic Benefit of Astronomy

A couple of weeks ago, when a friend heard that I would be teaching Trinity Western’s first ever course in astronomy this fall, he asked, “What’s the economic benefit of astronomy? What does it contribute to productivity?” My gut reaction was to defend the notion of the liberal arts and sciences, in which every human intellectual pursuit is valuable in and of itself, quite apart from economics. This is especially true in the Christian context, for we explore all truth as God’s truth, and the universe as God’s creation. But then I realized I could actually engage my friend on his own terms.

The economic benefit of astronomy is, in fact, nearly impossible to over-estimate. If no one had turned a telescope to the skies (as Galileo did starting exactly 400 years ago), and sought — along with his contemporaries and the following generations of natural philosophers — to understand why the realities thus experienced were so shockingly different than expected on the basis of tradition, we would quite simply not have any of the technological devices which followed upon the heels of the rise of modern science. The industrial revolution would not have occurred, and we would still be in the Middle Ages technologically.

Imagine that instead of the earth’s clear atmosphere, a mist perpetually blocked our view of the heavens. Supposing that life would be possible under such conditions [1], it would be a severely impoverished life, without the nocturnal vistas which throughout human history have led us to ponder such weighty notions as eternity and existence, as well as express — and seek answers to — our curiosity about the myriads of twinkling stars of all colours, the Via Lactea (Milky Way), and the wanderers (planets).

Newton’s laws gave humanity the first accurate and useful understanding of motion and force. And where did Newton get his impetus? Largely from pondering the motion of the heavenly bodies, apart from which the essential idealization of the frictionless state would have remained unrealized and unimagined. It was these ideas of force and motion, conceived in the heavens, which enabled the ensuing technological revolution.

And thus astronomy has led directly to the saving of countless lives (due to the medical advances afforded by modern science and technology), and has engendered and improved literally billions more (via every other form of technology). It has created or facilitated nearly every single job in the “developed” world. Is there any single field of study which has had a socio-economic impact anywhere near that of astronomy?

Astronomy stands at the root of modern science. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) spent three decades meticulously recording the motions of the planets and stars, and his reported dying wish (“Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”) has been granted. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) organized Tycho’s reams of data into the planetary ellipses, which were in turn explained by Isaac Newton (1643-1727) in his theories of gravity and motion. In the meantime, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) provided telescopic evidence in support of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), finding that some heavenly bodies orbit others (Jupiter’s moons), Venus orbits the sun instead of the earth, and our moon’s terrestrial features reveal it isn’t a quintessentially perfect heavenly body. Brahe’s life was not in vain, for without his and his colleagues’ astronomical contributions, life four centuries hence would have been unimaginably different.

1. G. Gonzalez & J.W. Richards [in The Privileged Planet (Washington: Regnery, 2004)] actually make the case that the conditions necessary for discovery coincide with those for life.

Last updated Sep. 24th, 2009 at 8:27pm by Arnold Sikkema