Sometimes people ask me: What is astronomy good for?
In response, I usually tell them an anecdote about one of the greatest scientists of all time, Sir Michael Faraday, whose pioneering studies in electricity and magnetism opened the door for modern technology.
William Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer (the equivalent of minister of finance), visited Farady in his lab and asked him about the practical worth of electricity. “Why, sir,” Faraday responded, “there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!”
When one deals with basic research, as is the case with astronomy, it is virtually impossible to know in advance to which practical applications that research might lead. The fact is that the very first “Laws of Nature” (e.g. the laws of motion and of gravity) were formulated by Newton on the basis of astronomical observations. Those are the laws on which our technology is ultimately based.
In addition, astronomical phenomena may be used directly for some fundamental measurements. We know today, for instance, that pulsars — rapidly rotating neutron stars — are the most accurate clocks in nature. One day in the not-too-distant future, they may replace atomic clocks in providing our standard of time.
Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which was both motivated and tested by astronomical observations, is already crucial for the operation of GPS systems. Observations of the Sun provide vital information about potential disruptions in communications and power grids.
At the end of the day, however, research in astronomy and astrophysics is motivated by human curiosity. We want to understand the origin, workings, and fate of universe, and to appreciate our place within it. Astronomy enables us to answer questions that we didn’t even know how to ask 100 years ago.