Promoting astronomy: Educational or Entertaining?

Everybody likes space. The aura of mystery around the universe tickles one’s interest like nothing else. Or at least, that is what you would expect. In practice, people are often only initially fascinated by the idea of astronomy, and lose interest once something has to be learned. Ironically, while the interest in astronomy is decreasing, the popularity of its distant, non-academic cousin, astrology, is still expanding. Perhaps the difference is that astronomy lacks a personal touch, but whatever the reason, it seems like astronomy has to constantly answer the question ‘what can I do with it’?

While the answer could fill this entire blog, it would unfortunately not inspire hordes of readers to become astronomy fanatics. Instead, we will keep it concise. To read more about the importance of astronomy, click here. In the past, astronomy helped us tell the time, harvest our crops and arrive at our destinations. Even today, technology originally developed for astronomy is pervasive in everyday life; from the cameras in our mobile phones to the MRI machines in our hospitals, this technology is everywhere. Next to the practical applications, astronomy expands our knowledge and pushes the boundaries of the known universe through the study of celestial objects, space and the physical universe as a whole.

Yes, we think astronomy is fascinating. But how do we get other people interested in the universe? While making educational material available is vital, it is equally important to reach the public on a larger scale. In essence, the answer lies in this question: How do we make astronomy fun? In this endeavour, although some disagree, the key factor is entertainment. Rather than beating astronomy into the public with the proverbial stick, science communicators often try to ‘trick’ unsuspecting victims into learning about astronomy; camouflaging scientific knowledge with entertaining facts and activities.

Traditional schooling makes a distinction between education and entertainment. Perhaps instead of a dichotomy, education and entertainment should be seen as possibilities on a spectrum from which we as educators and communicators can choose the right combination to suit our specific purpose. Finding the balance between amusing the public and passing on knowledge, however, is tricky. Whichever approach is chosen to promote astronomy, it is important that the integrity of the science remains uncompromised.

This is a dilemma faced not only by astronomy, but also science in general. Lately there has been a growing trend of science festivals and guerrilla science projects in unlikely settings, such as or These events – less science fair, more music festival – take science out of the academic context and present it in an informal setting, combining it with arts and drinks. The idea is that people who are usually not exposed to academics experience science in a stimulating environment where they can develop a positive attitude towards it: the so-called branding of science.

Maybe astronomy needs a similar marketing strategy. Maybe it needs to be branded into an approachable and exciting product that not only emphasizes the glitz and glamour of the universe but also conveys the endless possibilities for research and the fascinating discoveries in the field. The goal, ultimately, is not to merely trick people into learning while they are having fun, but to plant the seed of curiosity that will eventually grow on its own.

(Guest blog by Tibisay Sankatsing Nava, Science Communications Masters Student currently visiting the OAD. Views expressed in OAD guest blogs may not necessarily represent the views of the OAD.)