Global Astronomy Month blog 2012

By Kevin Govender, OAD Director.
Originally published on GAM Blog, on April 6th, 2012

What would you do to change the world? Would you even want to? Perhaps the world as it is today is in some uncontrollable balance that’s beyond human intervention?

However, the trajectory we are on as a planet can sometimes seem ominously gloomy, and this is in no small part due to the dominance of the human species.

So maybe I should ask instead what you would do to make the world a better place to live in. Surely this something within our reach – certainly each time I make someone smile or pick up litter from a hiking trail or help someone in need – each time I’m making the world just a slightly better place to live in. But how will these small local actions that I perform contribute to alleviating the high levels of poverty, suffering and war around the globe? How will it help to appease the levels of anger and hatred that lead people to kill each other? Some may say that “every little bit counts” and of course it does – rationally every little bit counts. But in the same way as if you were trying to move a sand dune with a teaspoon on a windy day, so too will every little bit count! This is not to say that we should stop doing the little things to make the world a better place – we absolutely should – but it’s to say that if we open our minds to bigger possibilities we could do a lot more with a similar scale of individual effort.

It’s like if we got a thousand people with teaspoons to move that sand dune, or used many teaspoons to build a large shovel, or have people form a wall to block the wind while you worked on moving that dune. If you’re reading this on your computer as a result of your connection to the internet – if these words are making you think – then you form the part of the world’s population who are capable of innovatively tackling global challenges. The simple fact is that it will not take any single hero or country or organisation to make the world a better place. Rather it will take a generation of thinkers, innovators, problem solvers. The strongest tool by far that we have to make the world a better place is the human mind – and that’s where astronomy comes in!

Astronomy, in its most basic form, makes people think! It gives us perspective. It shows us our place in the universe. Astronomy stretches the imagination. It inspires! It pushes human curiosity to its limits – and beyond! Astronomy makes what seems impossible very possible indeed! Imagine a high school student calculating the distance to the moon, or the circumference of the earth, or the orbits of our neighbouring planets. Imagine a retired farm worker with virtually no formal education figuring out how an eclipse works through guided observation, or realising the 3-dimensional nature of the celestial sphere. Imagine human beings exploring the composition of stars, rotation of galaxies, atmospheres of other planets, all from an impossibly distant location over a period of time that’s less than a flash in the history of the universe! Astronomy is one of the most powerful tools to develop the human mind and as such it sharpens this instrument of world changing potential.

We are in a time when the world needs, more than ever before, our combined effort – our united thought – to steer the future in a positive direction. We are in a time when humans are realising this, and the field of astronomy is realising its power to contribute. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the largest international body of professional astronomers, has come up with a strategy to use the power of astronomy to stimulate global development. It’s not a strategy that tries to portray astronomy as some silver bullet that will miraculously solve global challenges – rather it’s designed to stimulate the human mind – to empower people to solve people’s problems. It’s a strategy that recognises the importance of science, technology and culture in making the world a better place – and because astronomy serendipitously straddles all three of those areas , it serves as an invaluable instrument for development. To realize this strategy and make things happen, they’ve even established the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD).

So what can you do to change the world? Use this amazing tool called astronomy to sharpen the human mind. Sharpen as many minds as you can. Inspire them with the beauty and scale of the universe. Equip them with the invaluable curiosity and problem solving skills that astronomy is so good at stimulating. Shape those minds towards solving the challenges that we and our families, communities, countries, world will face at some point – and accept that although you may never see the eventual fruits of your efforts, you will have made more of an impact than you will ever know by simply empowering those minds.