The state of astronomy in the minds of the modern public

Astronomy is one of the oldest scientific endeavors. News reports regarding archaeological finds that relate to ancient studies of astronomy are a regular occurrence. Mankind has been observing and recording the goings-on in the sky for much longer than he has been keeping records of his own doings.

It is fair to say that the direct importance of astronomy on modern culture is greatly diminished compared to many years ago. These days we do not eagerly await the blessing of a local shaman before rushing out to sow seeds and harvest crops. The small number of us who do such tasks tend to look at a calendar. The relevance of astronomy in matters relating to computers, the Internet, football, iPads and the like, is tiny.

On the other hand, any astronomer knows the delight of walking home from the pub and filling a conversational hole with a throw-away comment like "oh look, its Mars" and generating some passing spark of interest. People will look up, and go "oooh!". If they have had too much to drink they may also walk into a lamppost and go "ouch".

On just such an occasion I was recently forced to learn the hard way how poor some people's knowledge of astronomy can be. I was standing outside with a fairly good friend about my age and remarked upon Mars riding high in the south. To my slightly short sighted eyes it appears obviously red. Bear in mind this was in the middle of London, and Mars was pretty much the only thing I could see.

My friend remarked on how bright it was. I replied with a comment about Mars being close (I think i said about 40 million miles) at this point in its orbit. The conversation rapidly reached phrases like "Mars is a planet?" followed soon by "our Sun is a star?". Given the choice between an hour long monologue which needed to start somewhere around Copernicus and the option of going inside for another beer, I took the easy way out.

It is not the fault of the person. Or the fault of astronomy for that matter. It is very clear that the relevance of astronomy to modern life is at an all time low. So much so, basic principles, such as those taught in primary schools, have faded from the minds of average people.

Another thing struck me recently. A few months ago I was visiting friends in London (I have a lot of friends in London!) and we were musing on what to do. I suggested we visited the Greenwich Observatory. In the absence of any better ideas we did just that. A short way into our visit we realised that we'd come on the last weekend of the school holidays. The place was bursting with both adults and children alike. The main exhibition rooms were thronging with people - especially around the famous Harrison sea clocks. Quite a struggle to get around.

There are two things in the observatory I love to see on each visit (apart from the clocks!). One is the meridian quadrant used by Halley, and the other is the huge refractor in the dome. It always disappoints me the way people walk passed the quadrant and other displayed instruments without really paying them much attention. These items are the physical evidence of history. As they are not multi-media enabled, they tend to get ignored.

Up in the refractor dome, the situation was even worse. Downstairs you could hardly move for people. However, only a tiny fraction of them seemed bothered to make the short climb into the dome to marvel at the remarkable telescope that graces the dome. I myself spent ages looking at the large refractor and marveling at the crude engineering that runs it around the sky.

I wish some of those parents had bothered to drag their offspring up to the dome. To a child's mind I think that refractor is probably the most inspiring sight in the whole observatory. If only a few more kids saw it we might have one more amateur astronomer, and one less urchin on the street corners.

Even twenty or thirty years ago, an amateur astronomer was treated with some small degree of awe and respect. Today, being an amateur astronomer is at best "weird" and "strange" and at worst a little to the left of deviant behavior. To the masses, spending a cold winters night doing anything other than watch television or surf the 'net just attracts suspicion.

The ancient astronomers built their great stone circles because they had an urgent requirement to know the time of year and record the passing of the seasons. In today's culture there is no need to answer these questions, thus no need to be interested in astronomy. In society today, the less relevance a pursuit has to everyday life, the more it is ignored. Such a relationship as been true throughout recorded history, but I feel its getting worse and worse.