It is an eye-opener for most people. Light pollution means for many of us living in cities or close to them, we have never seen a truly dark sky. We have never seen the sky in the way people at the beginning of the 19th Century saw it.
Perhaps that explains why so few people see their lives as being impacted by the first science of Astronomy. Little could be further from the truth. The quest for knowledge in and of itself, rather than the search for answers to a problem, often means that we, societal we, have to look at things in different ways and come to alternative conclusions.
Copernicus changed the world forever when he debunked the church’s view and proved that the earth was not the center of the universe. If the quest for knowledge is really just the foundation of all the basic sciences, then as the first discipline Astronomy has pride of place.
An ancient science
Rousseau (not the most forward thinker of his day decrying the evidence to the contrary) suggested that Astronomy is based on superstition, in some ways he was right but in so many more ways he was wrong. In the first place, Astronomy developed a mathematical and geometrical foundation to its observations. From the time of the concept of the earth as spherical was established, a 360⁰ scale was in use. Quadrants helped in measurement and from the beginning accurate data assessment was a principle.
In the other basic sciences such as medicine, there was no empirical date until much later. A diagnosis was still based on the acuity of the observer. The cause of malaria was not discovered until 1880, but astronomers have been able to accurately position the planet Neptune for the last 34 years.
By the time Rousseau was writing, (the 1750s) navigators had been grossing the globe using the stars as their guide for hundreds of years. The telescope had been invented and re-invented more than once, Kepler had published his laws of planetary motion. Newton has realized the significance of his apple, Haley had worked out that the comet was the same one, and they had named it after him.
The point? The ancient science was still far ahead of its companion sciences and its observations were considerably more accurate and potentially of greater use.
Why does it matter?
At its most fundamental Astronomy is the science asking why we exist. Asking too, why only us? It is down to Astronomy that we have the love affair with science fiction because at some level the massive coincidence that only one place in this vastness can carry life is just too random to be truly credible.
If you disagree with the premise that knowledge for its own sake is of value, you are still faced with Astronomy’s relevance to the world. Without astronomy, your life would not be as it is today. Besides everything else, your cell phone wouldn’t have a camera.