When you mention the word "astronomy" to many, they would immediately think of our Moon, the stars and/or the planets. Many would even get the term wrong, saying "astrology" instead, a particularly irritating word to many astronomers today; amateur or otherwise.
Many are not aware of the true importance of astronomy in the modern world. The main reason why the title of this article is "Astronomy and the Modern World" is that astronomy and the modern world are mainly seen as separate concepts. Many still think of astronomy as a hermit's pursuit, picturing the loner on the hill at 3 a.m. peering through a tube at the heavens. In my own experience, this is a very narrow-minded view of a science (and it is a science) that led to the many concepts and inventions that helped shape our modern world.
Of course, the science of astronomy certainly deals with the Moon, the stars and the planets, however, it is much more than that.
Let's briefly look at astronomy in the past. Astronomy has been known, in one form or another, to most civilizations throughout history. In many cases, astronomy was used to predict events here on Earth, whether they be crop yields, weather forecasting or even how many storms were received in a year. Astronomy was perceived as extremely important to ancient civilizations because, in one form or another, it was a direct connection to their gods or at least some unknown force that could directly influence their lives. We did not know the mechanics of the heavens at the time, so we learned to respect them (just in case). In the past, "astronomy" and "astrology" were one in the same.
Our modern calendar was initially defined centuries ago using astronomy. The year is (approximately) the time for Earth to complete one full orbit around the Sun. The month is (approximately) the time the Moon takes to complete one full orbit around the Earth. The day is (approximately) the time the Earth takes to spin once on its axis.
Astronomy was initially used to predict where the known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) would appear in the observable sky at specific times (such as planting and harvesting seasons). In the past, astronomy was seen to be intimately connected with day to day life. Kings and Queens hired court astronomers to keep them up to date on the happenings of the heavens so that they would be always connected with the deities that bestowed such honour unto them.
Through this reasoning, many became curious about how the heavens really worked. In some cases, this curiosity was met with scepticism from religious leaders who thought that faith was enough and that explanations were not required.
Many believed that the separation of "astronomy" and "astrology" came during the Renaissance. Great inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei paved the way toward a more logical method of the sciences. The "Scientific Method" was born during this period and along with it came the science of astronomy as opposed to a "belief" in astronomy. Although astrology was still used, it was eventually marginalized into the form we see today.
During the Renaissance At that time, astronomy became its own unique science. Although this was good, it also sowed the seeds of the divide between the modern world and astronomy. Eventually, astronomy no longer seemed useful for our daily lives and was relegated to the position of a science of the heavens, which was seen as separate from us here on the Earth.
In the past, astronomy was useful because it was believed that the heavens literally controlled everyone's lives. In the modern era, this is no longer seen as true, except in "astrology", however, our modern thinkers do not perceive "astrology" as an accepted science.
As the 20th century dawned, science was seen as something that had no limits and it was routinely celebrated in the culture of the day. However, some of this "respect" was simply salesmanship from those who sought a profit from the idea of science rather than those who truly appreciated it. In one example, the early days of radioactivity were replete with miracle cures using mercury, radium, uranium and other magic potions for every ailment from colds to baldness. Very few had any idea about the deadly effects of radioactivity on the human body, but that did not matter as long as some money was made.
During the first half of the 20th century, larger telescopes were constructed to study the heavens, however, these were under the control of a select few who truly respected the science. The "man on the street" did not think much about the subject and did not have to, since his/her daily life was not seen to be influenced by astronomy in any way. This was in stark contrast to pre-Renaissance period.
When the "planet" Pluto was discovered in 1930, a brief resurgence in scientific curiosity amongst the masses followed. To many, the discovery of a 9th planet seemed exciting, but it was still not enough to convince the masses that astronomy was important for their daily lives.
Up to the mid 20th century, many could probably be forgiven if they thought that astronomy was not important in their day to day lives. That changed on October 4, 1957. Even today, if you mentioned that date to many, they would simply shrug and would not be able to tell you what happened on that day.
October 4, 1957 completely changed how we depend on the heavens. On that day, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite of the Earth. Although it simply emitted short beeps, it signalled a new era in communications never before imagined (except by science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke). Once launching satellites became possible, worldwide communications became a new concept. Although shortwave radio already provided worldwide communications, it was heavily dependent on solar and weather conditions and required huge amounts of electricity to power the transmitters and repeating stations around the world.
Less than 5 years later, the concept of live worldwide television transmission became reality. When AT&T constructed Telstar 1, many did not know about the potential of such an invention. However, when North America suddenly had the ability to directly broadcast to Europe and vice-versa, the possibilities seemed endless. Telstar 1 proved that live worldwide television broadcasting was possible.
Only two Telstar satellites were ever launched. For many pioneer efforts, there is always a successor that is more lucrative and practical. This came with the first geostationary satellite program named Syncom. Syncom 2 was the first truly geostationary satellite. One of its many uses included the first satellite phone call between heads of governments.
The Syncom program was strictly created for the American government. However, for every government program there is a commercial spin-off. This event occurred (shortly after Syncom) on April 6, 1965 with the launch of Intelsat 1-F1, also known as "Early Bird". Less than 10 years after Sputnik, the first commercial geostationary satellite was in service.
Early Bird was one of three American geostationary satellites that were used to broadcast the first worldwide television broadcast, aptly named Our World" on June 25, 1967. At the time, it had a record television audience, nearly 400 million people around the world.
Although "Our World" was most remembered for the Beatle's live performance of "All you Need is Love", it featured many talents from around the world. Canada was televised in the form of a Ghost Lake Alberta cattle ranch, Kitsilano Beach, B.C. and most notably, Marshall McLuhan in a Toronto TV studio, who uttered the most prophetic statement in satellite communications history:
"Everyone will look at this program as if it were it were something they had already seen before, with just a little addition of this or that because that is the inevitable way in which we look at everything: its the same old thing with a little item or two added."
"If people try to prophesize about today's show, they will be steadfastly looking in the rear-view mirror."
Remember these amazing statements, because they will be mentioned again in this article.
Less than five years after the "Our World" broadcast, Canada made history by launching the first domestic commercial geostationary satellite. Named "Anik A1", it provided the first television service to Canada's far north (CBC-North). Today, the "Anik F" series of satellites provide the entire Bell ExpressVu satellite TV service for the entire country, as well as Canadian satellite service for both North and South America.
In the modern world, we depend on satellites every single day, whether we know it or not. When we turn on our televisions, use our portable GPS for directions, look at weather forecasts, listen to satellite radio and/or watch a live news report from Iraq or Afghanistan, we are using satellites.
Mr. McLuhan was absolutely correct when he uttered his prophetic words on "Our World". He was the first to truly understand that we, as a civilization, do not care where our broadcasts come from, just as long as we can receive the broadcasts. In other words, when we turn on our TV's, use our GPS receivers, etc, we are not conscious of the satellite infrastructure that we are utilizing. What Mr. McLuhan had essentially predicted is that satellites would be taken for granted.
When Mr. McLuhan said that prophesizing about the "Our World" broadcast was tantamount to looking in a "rear-view mirror", he was, in essence saying that although we are in a modern technological age, we only have our past to encompass its meaning. At the time of the "Our World" broadcast, the concept of satellite communications was in its infancy. Not until the 1990's did we see the true blossom of satellite telecommunications.
In the modern age, astronomy is seen with a "rear-view mirror" because many do not understand that astronomy has grown since the days of "watching the stars and planets". Nobody has really told them that it has, despite incredible technological advances in the analysis of collected data. Despite the Hubble Space Telescope, a truly remarkable feat of engineering to say the least, many still believe that it is doing traditional astronomy, i.e. looking at the stars and planets for purposes that do not serve us here on the Earth, except for showing pretty pictures of well-known celestial objects. The HST is far more than that but few know or even care. They see the HST with respect to their "rear view mirror".
How did we know how to place a satellite into orbit in the first place? There had to be some kind of fundamental concepts we had to understand in order to do this time and time again. Some might say "celestial mechanics", which is the understanding of how a celestial body (in this case satellites) orbits its corresponding parent body (in this case the Earth). This would certainly be true. However, even celestial mechanics has its cornerstone; something we have talked about before. Astronomy!
Our satellite infrastructure would never have been possible without the background knowledge that humanity had obtained in astronomy over the centuries. The mathematics required to place a satellite into orbit were initially developed by astronomers such as Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Karl Freidrich Gauss, to name a few. For all of our technological advances, few know the basics of celestial mechanics, a concept developed over 300 years ago. This is true because few schools actually teach the subject.
Concepts such as geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus were defined and developed for use in astronomy. These concepts are essential for our satellite population to remain healthy to provide the services we require from them every single day.
However, the news is not all good. There have been some who have claimed that our scientific excellence is beginning to falter. In the modern world, there are many distractions that are threatening to weaken our sense of curiosity and wonder of the natural world and the heavens. These distractions are indeed threatening to weaken our minds and warp our appreciation of what is truly important. Many of these distractions are, ironically, also provided by satellites.
One example of our faltering scientific excellence occurred at 11:56 a.m. EST on February 10, 2009 when two satellites collided over northern Siberia claiming the life of an Iridium telecommunications satellite. This event was an initial warning that the satellite population was becoming overcrowded and that we were not paying attention as we launched more and more objects into space.
Although the destroyed Iridium satellite was replaced three days later, the message was clear. We can no longer take satellites for granted. As a result, we can no longer afford to take astronomy for granted either.
In some ways, we have come full circle. In the modern world, we now depend on celestial objects in our everyday lives. The only difference this time around is that we have constructed these celestial objects to serve our needs. However, we are depending on the science of astronomy to determine the positions of our man-made celestial objects to directly influence our day to day lives. In other words, we are protecting our modern world by protecting our satellites through the use of astronomy.
Astronomy is once again crucial for the preservation of our modern world. How else can students be trained to appreciate why satellites orbit and why they work for us? How else can children be introduced to science that we depend on every day? How else can we motivate students to pursue a career in science? How else can we teach and provide students with practical examples of geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus?
Ironically, if we choose to ignore astronomy and treat it as a "hobby" instead of the important science that it is, we might very well suffer the fate that our ancestors once believed they would experience if they did not appease their gods.
Believe it or not, through our own design, astronomy has become one of the most relevant sciences in the 21st century.
Astronomy and the Modern World Was Last Modified On February 17, 2011