By Tanita Ramburuth-Hurt
“Is it possible for astronomy to make the world a better place? Can astronomy help solve problems of inequality and sustainability in the world?” These are questions I have long asked myself. In February 2023, I arrived at the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) in Cape Town, South Africa looking for answers. Of course, astronomy supports technological advancement and contributes to our knowledge and understanding of space as the final frontier. But how can it benefit the lives of all people, not just the privileged few who study it?
I believe that the work being done at the OAD can provide several answers. The power of astronomy is that it is able to inspire all people in many different ways. It is unique among the sciences. Simply by looking up and gazing at the night sky we can be profoundly stimulated emotionally, intellectually, philosophically and spiritually from deeply personal to macro levels. We can simultaneously feel insignificant and be reminded that we all have a place as citizens of the Earth and citizens of the Universe. By taking advantage of this profound impact that astronomy can have, it can be used as a tool in addressing problems of inequality and sustainability.
The OAD’s projects are evidence that astronomy is truly an inter-disciplinary science with transferable skills. Astronomy can be a gateway science into many other scientific fields like computer science and engineering. Through the OAD, projects based around astronomy are used to inspire scientific adventures across many other fields. This exploration of the scientific method strengthens critical thinking and problem solving skills, both essential for tackling issues of equality and social and environmental sustainability. As an example, the Joint Exchange Development Initiative (JEDI) hosted in Namibia and Mauritius was aimed at teaching university students about astronomy and data processing but participants also left the workshop with statistical analysis and science communication skills. These skills are transferable into political and social science spheres, where leaders have the power to make large-scale beneficial change.
With the polarisation of political views and “othering” that has become more prevalent in the world, astronomy can be used to reconnect us with each other. Observing the stars, the Moon and the Sun is a thread that joins all people of Earth. Societies across time and space have used the stars for guidance in some form: locating North and South, keeping track of the seasons, using the Moon to keep time, telling stories linked to spirituality and religion. Being reminded that we share the night sky can give us a sense of belonging, which is a basic human need. One of the current projects under the flagship theme of Science diplomacy through Astronomy: Celebrating our Common Humanity is Astronomy for Mental Health. Here, projects explore the ways in which star-gazing and astronomy education can be used as a tool to improve mental health. In collaboration with practising psychologists and mental health experts, these projects focus on vulnerable communities such as those living in poverty and refugees. The OAD uses research showing that awe-inspiring activities, like star-gazing and spending time in nature, can improve mental health. They use astronomy as a tool to encourage inclusion, connectedness and the de-stigmatisation of mental illness.
The ability of astronomy to reconnect us through time is evident with the OAD-funded Brazilian project OruMbya. This project enabled young people to re-establish a connection with indigenous knowledge of nature and astronomy in Brazil. It stimulated dialogue with older generations in the community and facilitated the continuation of ideas around the human connection to the Earth and the Universe. OAD projects that harness indigenous knowledge systems around the world help to de-centralise our understanding of our place in the Universe from Western astronomy. This paradigm shift is important because it starts to break down pervasive stereotypes that science is done and can only be done by white men, and begins to communicate the truth that science has been done by and is for all people.
Globally, girls and women are highly underrepresented in scientific fields. Correcting this imbalance is challenging, especially in societies and countries where patriarchy and traditional gender roles restrict them from pursuing scientific careers. The OAD-funded project SciGirls brought together 40 girls from rural places in Ethiopia to offer exposure to astronomy and other sciences thereby empowering them with direct access to scientific knowledge.
There are several more OAD-funded projects that make astronomy more accessible. These projects are helping create astronomy vocabularies in under-represented languages thereby opening channels for transferring ideas, scientific concepts and knowledge far more widely. They are upskilling teachers and educators so that they can provide generations of learners with knowledge and quality education. There are projects aimed at making the wonders of astronomy accessible to visually impaired people, which brings their unique perspective into the field of astronomy.
In the same vein as astronomy instilling awe, the night sky is also a muse in the art world. Artist Kamil Hassim spent time at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and SARAO (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) in Cape Town, South Africa to create Event Horizon. Hassim says the inspiration comes from “The idea [that] embodied knowledge is central to many indigenous knowledge systems, which hold that knowledge is not something that can be acquired solely through intellectual pursuits. Rather, it is something that must be felt and experienced, in order to be fully understood.”
There is something profoundly human that astronomy encompasses. Through the OAD projects, its impact lies at the intersection of science, culture, mental health, spirituality, politics, gender and art. This makes astronomy a special field and a useful tool to help solve problems of inequality and sustainability in the world. Whether it is just being able to witness the immensity of the night sky or harnessing astronomy as a science to influence positive change, it is something that touches the lives of the vast majority of people on Earth. It has the potential to inspire action towards a better world for all.
If the OAD and its projects inspires you, check out their website. There are fellowships you can apply for to contribute to using astronomy as a tool for development. You can also apply for OAD funding to pursue your own project through the open annual call for proposals (deadline 31 May 2023).