Is there any practical use for astronomy?

  • Although astronomy is very cool and the things we are learning are awesome, is there really any practical use to knowing the things we know about the universe?



    Do other fields of science draw from the current tome of astronomical knowledge?


    The standard reasons: mining/energy from asteroids/the Sun, meeting advanced civilizations who can teach us things, possible colonization, navigation (if GPS goes down!), possible better understanding of modern-day physics.

    Why the downvote? This is probably the most important question about astronomy. +1 from me.

    Masering was first discovered by astronomers. Perhaps lasers could have been developed sooner if others had been following astronomy.

  • This question begs the question, does everything need a practical use? The answer is a resounding no. What's the practical use of the Louvre, or of your local neighborhood public park where you enjoy weekend barbecues?



    There are some things that are very worthwhile that have little or no economical gain. Your local neighborhood public park in fact has negative economic gain. Admission is free, but maintenance is not. Think of how much money your city would make if they sold it to a condominium developer, and how much money it would save by not having to pay to have the park maintained.



    Despite having no obvious economic gain, some things are nonetheless worth quite a bit. Many of the sciences fall in this category. For example, what is the practical use of archeology? (There are some, but that's not the point.)



    Astronomy, like archeology, the Louvre, and your local public park, doesn't need a practical economical purpose. The purpose of the science is good enough.



    That said, there are practical applications of astronomy. The key application has been and still is navigation. Knowing the location of a ship at sea or the orientation of a vehicle in space requires astronomy.



    A less direct but still very important application of astronomy is in how it informs physics. Kepler was an astronomer, not a physicist. (Those two disciplines were very, very distinct in Kepler's day). Yet Kepler's work informed Newton on how to describe gravitation. More recently, astronomy has informed physics that its standard model was not quite correct. The observed neutrino flux from the Sun (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_neutrino_problem) was a third of what physics at the time said it should be. This resulted in a change to the standard model. Neutrinos have a small but non-zero mass, and they oscillate from one form to another.



    Astronomy continues to inform physics to this day. Physicists (and astronomers) remain clueless with regard to what constitutes dark matter and dark energy. But whatever they are, they certainly do exist.


    This reminds me of Robert R. Wilson's famous speech about the SSC.

    Nice post. Dark Matter and Dark energy are great examples. Neutrinos too, and I'll add, Einstein's general relativity was tested and verified by astronomy as well. And Neutron star mass and black hole mass give us some clues on high energy particle physics. The theorized "Quark star" which has never been observed for example.

    Very nice discussion.

    Then if Astronomy continues to inform Physics, and Physics changes our world, it has an economical gain, though it isnt easily or at all measurable, doesnt it?

    @Pablo -- Suppose physicists pinpoint what dark energy is, and suppose that pinpointing results in zero economical gain, ever. Does that mean the effort was worthless and should never have been pursued? (That's a rhetorical question. My answer is NO.)

    "...or of your local neighborhood public park where you enjoy weekend barbecues." I, for one, consider family gatherings to be quite practical. ;)

    Parks do have economic impact - on the property value of surrounding properties (see e.g. http://www.actrees.org/files/Research/parks_on_property_values.pdf), which, depending on your local tax scheme, may pay for (part of) its maintenance via e.g. property tax

    A comment on "This resulted in a change to the standard model." This is quite an understatement! The standard model predicts massless neutrinos. That neutrinos have mass means there is physics beyond the standard model, which is huuuuge.

    @HDE226868 -- Wilson's speech was about the National Accelerator Laboratory (later Fermilab), not the SSC. (Otherwise, good point!)

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