Sunday, November 18, 2007
Astronomy: the dim view
One Brian Robinson contributes to human understanding on the letters page of this Saturday’s Guardian with the following:
“Providing funding for astronomers does not in any way benefit the taxpayer. Astronomy may be interesting, but the only mouths that will get fed are the children of the astronomers. Astronomy is a hobby, and as such should not be subsidised by the Treasury any more than trainspotting.”
The invitation is to regard this as the sort of Thatcherite anti-intellectualism that is now ingrained in our political system. And indeed, the notion that anything state-funded must ‘benefit the taxpayer’ – specifically, by putting food in mouths – is depressing not only in its contempt for learning but also in its ignorance of how the much-vaunted ‘wealth creation’ in a technological society works.
But then you say, hang on a minute. Why astronomy, of all things? Why not theology, archaeology, philosophy, and all the arts other than the popular forms that are mass-marketable and exportable? And then you twig: ‘astronomy is a hobby’ – like trainspotting. This bloke thinks that professional astronomers are sitting round their telescopes saying ‘Look, I’ve just got a great view of Saturn’s rings!’ They are like the funny men in their sheds looking at Orion, only with much bigger telescopes (and sheds). In other words, Mr Robinson hasn’t the faintest notion of what astronomy is.
Now, I have some gripes with astronomers. It is not just my view, but seems to be objectively the case, that the field is sometimes narrowly incestuous and lacks the fecundity that comes from collaborating with people in other fields, with the result that its literature is often far more barren than it has any right to be, given what’s being studied here. And the astronomical definition of ‘metals’ is so scientifically illiterate that it should be banned without further ado, or else all other scientists should retaliate by calling anything in space that isn’t the Earth a ‘star’. But astronomy is not only one of the oldest and most profound of human intellectual endeavours; it also enriches our broader culture in countless ways.
The presence of Mr Robinson’s letter on the letters page, then, is not a piece of cheeky provocation, but an example of the nearly ubiquitous ignorance of science among letters-page editors. They simply didn’t see what he was driving at, and thus how laughable it is. It is truly amazing what idiocies can get into even the most august of places – the equivalent, often, of a reader writing in to say that, oh I don’t know, that Winston Churchill was obviously a Kremlin spy or that Orwell wrote Cold Comfort Farm. Next we’ll be told that astronomers are obviously fakes because their horoscopes never come true.