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Helping People Understand Why Astronomy Matters & What It Means

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - 09:28

Many people ask about the benefits of basic research, in particular astronomy research. The announcement of the possible existence of "Planet Nine" in the outer solar system provides a great opportunity to talk with the public about astronomical research and why it matters. To help inform the public of the significance of our work as astronomers, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Nova Southeastern University news service. It was picked up by several newspapers in Florida, reflecting widespread general interest in astronomy. Here I share my column with the AAS community, in case any of my colleagues find it useful to see my approach to emphasizing how astronomical exploration leads to crucial advances in human culture and technology.

Stefan Kautsch

Finding New Planets & Studying the Universe: Why It Matters & What It Means

Imagine believing something about yourself for many years. You're comfortable, even confident, in who you are. Then imagine one day waking up to have others tell you "not so fast, you may not be who you think you are." Your whole world changes in an instant.

That's sort of what happened to Pluto — what was once the ninth and farthest planet from our Sun — when scientists re-categorized the celestial object. Now astronomers have predicted that there may be another planet beyond Pluto — the newly named Planet Nine — which has been featured in recent news reports.

You might be wondering, "Why should I care how Pluto is categorized? How does discovering a new planet have any relevance to my daily life?"

Those are valid questions — after all, it's our nature to ask, "Why does all of this matter?"

The simple answer is that the study of our universe is, in part, the study of ourselves. It's the oldest science; we have been gazing into the night sky and wondering about what was out there, and what our place is in the world, since humans came into existence. And not much has changed — just look around today and you'll see just how much astronomy has impacted our lives.

Use a GPS, either in your car or on your smartphone? How about a camera? What about your smartphone itself? All of these devices have their roots in astronomy — after all, without astronomy and the plethora of man-made satellites orbiting Earth, you wouldn't be able to call your friends or relatives around the country or across the globe or get your GPS location so you can find the local pizza parlor. Many of the tools and devices we take for granted today got their start based on our thirst to study the heavens.

Over the past few years there has been a renewed emphasis placed on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Today we need more students to have that inquisitive fire lit inside of them so they can become tomorrow's scientists and researchers. Imagine where we'd be without Galileo, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, or Carl Sagan, to name a few. These giants were into STEM before STEM was STEM — and the stars provided the fertile ground that helped humankind take tremendous leaps forward.

While much more must be done to determine the status of Planet Nine, the fact is we have scientists and researchers working to do exactly that. That's what makes astronomy — and scientific research — so amazing: every time there's a new discovery, it raises more questions than it provides answers. Being explorers is what humankind is all about — and it's what continues to fascinate us to this day.

So when you hear that Pluto has had its designation as a planet taken away or that there is a new Planet Nine out there, it may be a quick story on the evening news or a message on Twitter, but it's really a little bit deeper than that. Science is ever-evolving, and with each new discovery we learn more about ourselves in the process. Planet Nine is another step in the scientific process — a process that has amazed humans for thousands of years, and with a renewed focus on STEM education, it will continue to amaze and inspire us all in the 21st century.

So welcome, Planet Nine, to human discovery — and please give our regards to our dear friend Pluto.

Stefan J. Kautsch
Nova Southeastern University
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