Astronomy: June 2009 Archives

Astronomy and the Media: a love story?

"In astronomy as in other scientific or societal fields, communication is an important aspect that no single organisation can overlook. Especially public research organisations should be accountable to the public for the tax money they use. This is only possible if the public is well informed. But this is even more crucial in order to secure additional funding for new projects.

As one scientist said, perhaps a little bit too provocatively, "the one percent spent on outreach allows one to get the 99 percent to have the project done". This is most likely too strong a statement but the general idea is there. Communication is also important to entertain the necessary excellent relations with the local communities - some of the large astronomical observatories know a lot about this.

Communication is also essential for astronomy to fulfil a fundamental role in modern society: attracting bright youngsters to scientific careers. Although girls and boys are more and more moving away from science, there is a great need for future scientists. And even if the young people won't become scientists, it is important that they are sensitive to science as a whole: as grown-ups, they won't be able to avoid relying on science in their daily life, and they will have to take decisions with a scientific dimension."

"Our ancestors observed the heavens for religious and secular reasons, with astronomy and astrology largely indistinguishable. Observations of stars, planets and constellations were used to create calendars that provided agricultural societies with valuable information for the seasonal planting and harvesting of crops, as well as to predict future events or to discern divine messages from the cosmos. Given the importance of such activities to the cultural identity and even physical survival of ancient people, it is not surprising that sky watchers had prominent roles in their societies. An abundance of archaeological evidence from around the world attests to the importance of the ancient astronomer. In modern times, however, public perception of astronomers began to change as astronomy evolved from an applied to a pure science. With less prominent roles in their societies, astronomers were forced to seek new forms of financial support for their scholarly activities from governments or wealthy benefactors and to justify their continued value to their fellow citizens. Although we live today in a time of remarkable astronomical discoveries, as many politicians and businesses know the public's collective memory can be short, and hence astronomers cannot afford to be complacent about our public image."

"Public Perception of Astronomers: Revered, Reviled and Ridiculed", by Michael J. West, European Southern Observatory, Invited review to appear in The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture: Proceedings of IAU Symposium No. 260, 2009. [Full paper] [More information at astro-ph]



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This page is an archive of entries in the Astronomy category from June 2009.

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