The political climate in 2018 has changed radically from where it was even two years ago. In some places, truths we would have thought self-evident are under attack. For some of the population, the earth is flat. For others, the universe was not created by a big bang, although many religious thinkers, other than the literalists, have found ways to square away big bang and a religious belief.
Science versus belief
For even the most atheistic out there, the universe holds such mystery for which there are no answers that belief seems like the only rational explanation. The GAIA map of the universe released earlier this year shows just how tiny the earth is in this vast unending space. How can it be that in all of it there is only one earth? Only once in all that time and vastness did the conditions that allowed life to exist happen? It seems impossible to believe unless you believe in something else.
As Astronomers worked out the universe is expanding then logic leads us to the idea it had to start somewhere, it began and if it did begin, how? This is a helpful concept for a religious believer.
Astronomy is a science. It examines everything that is not the earth and does so on the basis of data backed by observation and interpretation. It sees itself as a scientific fundamental, the idea of science for its own self; a science on top of which other science can be overlaid or underpinned depending on your perspective.
It does not see itself as being able to predict the future other than an asteroid is heading this way. But it does see itself as attempting to answer the big questions. How long have we been here? How long can we remain here?
But why are we here is a different question. There are obvious answers, trite ones at the least. But it is only in a moment of reflection or major change in our lives that we begin to wonder what is it all for? The big why question.
Astronomy does provide us with an end
We will not be around to see it, but our sun has a shelf-life. In 5 billion years or so it is going to burn out and life will no longer be sustainable on this planet we call home. By then we could all have gone to another planet equally able to sustain life. Who knows what we will have done in 5 billion years, but we have the time to work it out.
But it is the pure science which will help provide us the answers. To stop investigating where our world sits in the universe is to stop investigating our trajectory and to put it all down to luck.
We can half understand the people who would rather we spent our dollars on something more immediate. But given how long it has taken to understand what we do today, we’re probably not starting too soon.