Astronomers are mapping the stars, and the galaxies beyond them. Although it may become utilisable in the distant future, or may discover points of escalating interest (ex. Armageddon asteroids, aliens) in the short term, it is not practical nor essential like plumbing or farming. A lack of practical purpose however, does not mean it is unworthy of pursuit. It indicates to the community which supports this pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake, to rank the expenditure with other potentially useless investments, such as the military. Some researchers find it personally purposeful to inch precise instruments across the night sky, they find some pleasure witnessing the magnitude of the visible universe. Such pleasurable pursuits are extended beyond the community of researchers to the broader public via the mass media by shows like Cosmos, with much slower time-frames than sporting activities.
Mapping of the stars, supernova & other astronomical debris is no equivalent to practical industry from the perspective of democratic citizenry. Headlines, such as 40 000 000 Stars Mapped, are intended to loosen public purse strings but emphasize progress over pursuit. Farmers, plumbers and emergency services have a value which outstrips what is offered by astronomy (or the military). It may one day produce great value, as put forth with clarity by Mr. Stuhlinger. The link is to a piece of correspondence between a NASA director and a Christian sister.
That missive to the world, which is a contest for the faith of the multitude between two members of secular and sacred communities, keeps the ball rolling. If the ball, or to say it differently how we value our objectives, were to be the abolition of suffering, a Nietzschean perspective looms. Can the good can only be so, when there is suffering to mitigate? The affirmative answer is more Catholic than Christian, and has an equivalence in the Buddhist dogma of dukkha. Catholicism, which has an often wild and despicable history, has been a powerful ideology for millennia. Change was slow and suffering was a common thread to bind together a community (& to induce serfs to embrace their lot in life). How should this inform efforts to structure an understanding of modernity? Is the international community of tomorrow better united by the importance of suffering, or stargazing (or soldiering or shitting)?
Professional stargazers have reached a certain threshold in public awareness, the public figures of Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox demonstrate this. As much as they champion values of the Enlightenment (tradition of criticism, egalitarianism) and the significance of their academic domain, they have been unable to challenge the supremacy of the public dollar. They, and less prestigious members of their faculty, produce headlines as steps in the paper chase.
When progress is measured by percentages of mapped sky, for an activity which is communally, although not personally, worthless in the immediate future, I would suggest astronomy is serving an ideological purpose. It is a mental support for Western citizens to conceive, secure & justify the international situation. So to say, our moral elitism (science & secularism) is why our nations are leading the world (by non-faith based measures), why they will continue to do so and validation of the global economic system which is the best measure & explanation of differences in life quality. Does anyone know how often religious-social elitism justified suppression of lower classes in the past? To justify the relative standards of material existence, signs of progress are need to alleviate guilt by reassurances that change is coming. This justification is emptying the inner worth of pursuing knowledge for it’s own sake.
A quote from Mr. Deutsch from the book ‘The Beginning of Infinity’;
“But then there is the philosophical magnitude of a cluster of galaxies. As I moved the cross-hairs to one nondescript galaxy after another, clicking at what I guessed to be the centre of each, some whimsical thoughts occurred to me. I wondered whether I would be the first and last human being ever to pay conscious attention to a particular galaxy. I was looking at the blurry object for only a few seconds, yet it might be laden with meaning for all I knew. It contains billions of planets. Each planet is a world. Each has its own unique history – sunrises and sunsets; storms, seasons; in some cases continents, oceans, earthquakes, rivers. Were any of those worlds inhabited? Were there astronomers there? Unless they were an exceedingly ancient, and advanced, civilization, those people would never have travelled outside their galaxy. So they would never have seen what it looked like from my perspective – though they might know from theory. Were any of them at that moment staring at the Milky Way, asking the same questions about us as I was about them? If so, then they were looking at our galaxy as it was when the most advanced forms of life on Earth were fish.”
These days, mathematical algorithms become computerised and a machine is substituted for the man (or woman), all to produce signs of progress. What’s the rush?