This week’s instalment of the Technical Applications of Astronomy to Society features a piece written by Professor Antonio Mario Magalhaes; astronomer, IAU member and Full Professor at the Instituto de Astronomia, Geofisica e Ciencias Atmosfericas of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. In this piece, he outlines the wider impact that astronomy has had on society over the millennia. He is the President of the IAU’s Commission B6 on Astronomical Photometry and Polarimetry.

Astronomy is known as the oldest of Sciences.  This is in fact a reflection of the involvement of Astronomy with essentially all the endeavours that Humankind has undertaken, since pre-historic times to this day.

Our effort to make sense of (and use) our environment and continue to evolve our knowledge and understanding of how the local and remote Universe works has been of paramount importance over the ages:

  • it allowed Astronomy to possess an incredible breadth, covering a range of phenomena; it both fostered and fed off the development of other fields, such as Physics, Engineering and Mathematics;
  • by its nature, Astronomy influenced humanity across the globe and the development of several cultures, and
  • continues to affect human society and our culture over time as the technology, and its two-way relation with astronomy, continues to evolve.
The first image ever taken by humans of the whole Earth, photographed by William Anders from Apollo 8. Credit: NASA

Examples of this intimate relationship of Astronomy and Humankind activities are too numerous to name but a few can be noted:

  • the relation between the yearly change in the sighting of the Sun, Moon, stars and constellations allowed civilizations to develop Agriculture, such as those in Mesopotamia;
  • understanding how the observed celestial scene varies with time and position on Earth made navigation over our planet possible and fostered developments such as more precise clocks;
  • the understanding of the Solar System and the development of gravitation, involving great names such as Tycho, Kepler, Newton and Einstein, allowed the establishing of artificial satellites and the numerous probes sent to all planets and several moons;
  • the early experiments with the spectrum of the Sun by Herschel at the dawn of the XIX century extended the known, visible light into the infrared, now a part of the spectrum commonly employed in our daily lives;
  • techniques of image processing developed and perfected in Astronomy are now employed in cancer diagnostics;
  • use of spectroscopy of the Sun, stars and galaxies, from the XIX century on, allowed us to realise our most intimate relation with the stars and the Universe, revealing on the one hand where the atoms we are made of literally come from and, on the other, our own place in the expanding Universe.
Large and Small magellanic clouds, dwarf satellite galaxies located above the ALMA telescope. These are visible with the naked eye from the southern hemisphere. Credit: ESO/C. Malin.

Our language, music and culture has embraced terms such as black holes, Galaxy, Big Bang, supernovae and many others, another testimony of the deep influence of Astronomy in our everyday life.


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