Astrophysics — what’s the big deal?

Posted by Liz Kruesi
on Thursday, February 19, 2009

A few days ago one of my co-workers and I were discussing various branches of science and their importance to society. Biology and medicine help people. These fields are bettering society and the human life. Then, he said something that I just can’t get out of my mind: What about astrophysics? Who really cares? What’s it doing to better humanity? It’s a research area where the main point is gaining more knowledge. It won’t cure cancer. It won’t end world hunger. It’s just knowledge.

He, of course, enjoys the field — he works for Astronomy magazine after all. How could he not like the subject matter? But I think he makes an interesting point : Researching astrophysics is about gaining knowledge. It won’t save the world.

Yet isn’t that part of being human? The constant quest for knowledge? For how long have humans wondered what is “out there”? How long have they stared at the sky and pondered how it all works? By studying the stuff out there, we learn more about our own existence and our own home.

Physics, chemistry, and biology all involve the quest for knowledge, but they also are quite practical. The knowledge one gains can be used to create different materials, to explain how certain ailments spread within the human body (and how to cure them). They have practical results. How does a star work? What’s the structure of our Milky Way? It’s just knowledge. Our astronomical environment won’t change within the course of human history (unless there are space rocks on a collision course with Earth).

But humans are naturally curious creatures. We want to know more about our place in the cosmos. And that’s what astrophysics does — it quenches our thirst for knowledge. Personally, I think that’s a valid enough reason to continue exploring the astrophysical world.

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