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Although astronomy is very cool and the things we are learning are awesome, is there really any practical use to knowing the things we know about the universe?

Do other fields of science draw from the current tome of astronomical knowledge?

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    $\begingroup$ The standard reasons: mining/energy from asteroids/the Sun, meeting advanced civilizations who can teach us things, possible colonization, navigation (if GPS goes down!), possible better understanding of modern-day physics. $\endgroup$ – barrycarter Apr 1 '15 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ Why the downvote? This is probably the most important question about astronomy. +1 from me. $\endgroup$ – pela Apr 1 '15 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Masering was first discovered by astronomers. Perhaps lasers could have been developed sooner if others had been following astronomy. $\endgroup$ – Marc Apr 12 '15 at 1:34
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This question begs the question, does everything need a practical use? The answer is a resounding no. What's the practical use of the Louvre, or of your local neighborhood public park where you enjoy weekend barbecues?

There are some things that are very worthwhile that have little or no economical gain. Your local neighborhood public park in fact has negative economic gain. Admission is free, but maintenance is not. Think of how much money your city would make if they sold it to a condominium developer, and how much money it would save by not having to pay to have the park maintained.

Despite having no obvious economic gain, some things are nonetheless worth quite a bit. Many of the sciences fall in this category. For example, what is the practical use of archeology? (There are some, but that's not the point.)

Astronomy, like archeology, the Louvre, and your local public park, doesn't need a practical economical purpose. The purpose of the science is good enough.

That said, there are practical applications of astronomy. The key application has been and still is navigation. Knowing the location of a ship at sea or the orientation of a vehicle in space requires astronomy.

A less direct but still very important application of astronomy is in how it informs physics. Kepler was an astronomer, not a physicist. (Those two disciplines were very, very distinct in Kepler's day). Yet Kepler's work informed Newton on how to describe gravitation. More recently, astronomy has informed physics that its standard model was not quite correct. The observed neutrino flux from the Sun (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_neutrino_problem) was a third of what physics at the time said it should be. This resulted in a change to the standard model. Neutrinos have a small but non-zero mass, and they oscillate from one form to another.

Astronomy continues to inform physics to this day. Physicists (and astronomers) remain clueless with regard to what constitutes dark matter and dark energy. But whatever they are, they certainly do exist.

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  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me of Robert R. Wilson's famous speech about the SSC. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Apr 1 '15 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ Nice post. Dark Matter and Dark energy are great examples. Neutrinos too, and I'll add, Einstein's general relativity was tested and verified by astronomy as well. And Neutron star mass and black hole mass give us some clues on high energy particle physics. The theorized "Quark star" which has never been observed for example. $\endgroup$ – userLTK Apr 2 '15 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ Very nice discussion. $\endgroup$ – pela Apr 2 '15 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ Then if Astronomy continues to inform Physics, and Physics changes our world, it has an economical gain, though it isnt easily or at all measurable, doesnt it? $\endgroup$ – Pablo Jul 19 '17 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ A comment on "This resulted in a change to the standard model." This is quite an understatement! The standard model predicts massless neutrinos. That neutrinos have mass means there is physics beyond the standard model, which is huuuuge. $\endgroup$ – AtmosphericPrisonEscape Mar 29 '18 at 13:00
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Astronomy has several practical applications/spin-off. For instance, in developing rocket engines, NASA accidentally invented an extremely efficient fire extinguisher, very beneficial for firefighters. Imaging technology for telescopes is used in cameras, spaceship insulation led to teflon, figuring out how to go to the bathroom in space led to better dialysis apparatus, and much, much more. Investigating the unknown always leads to new and unforeseen insight.

However, I think that for most astronomers, this is not the reason we do astronomy. With the risk of sounding a little pretentious, I thnk that the goal of astronomy is to explore the unknown, find our place in this incredible cosmos, learn about the origin of ourselves, and simply find out as much as possible about Nature. Not unlike people did 500 years ago and before, seeking to map out the world and find out what's beyond the horizon.

Okay, that did sound pretentious. I still think it's true, though.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you on the last bit - and you're being too pretentious! - but the advances you list were thanks to engineering, not astronomy itself. Astronomy has motivated space exploration, but the original motivation for sending up humans was - for the US and the USSR - less noble. I suppose that sounds a bit pretentious. . . $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Apr 1 '15 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Inventing rockets is not astronomy. It's aerospace engineering. Almost all of those spinoffs are from aerospace engineering, not astronomy. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Apr 1 '15 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, okay, @HDE226868 and DavidHammen, re-reading my answer I agree with you on being pretentious. But I would consider aerospace engineering to be a part of astronomy, even though I also agree that the original motiviation was less noble. $\endgroup$ – pela Apr 2 '15 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @pela That was a typo! I edited the comment to add something - It originally said, "you're not being too pretentious". Sorry about that! $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Apr 2 '15 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868: Ha ha, okay thanks, but I don't know, maybe the typo was actually right… :) $\endgroup$ – pela Apr 3 '15 at 6:09
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Are you willing to include all of astronomy, including the basics of mapping the positions and movements of astronomical features?

If so, then astronomy has been the theoretical and practical underpinning of basically all timekeeping and navigation, for all of human history, and every other technology or practice that depends on them. You can't get more practical than "when do I plant the crops" or "which direction do I sail to get to my destination," both of which have life-and-death consequences.

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One practical use of astronomy (I actually don't go along with the premise that it needs to be directly useful - there are many examples of blue-skies research turning into applications and I don't see why astronomy should differ; there is also the issue of inspiring and training the next generation of scientists: something that astronomy and astrophysics is particularly suited to) is in space weather forecasting.

An understanding of solar activity, coronal mass ejections and the geocoronal environment has led to power generation grids, satellite operators etc. being able to take action to minimise the damage and disturbance caused by forecasted geomagnetic storms.

Going back a bit, astronomy used to be fairly critical for navigation! I guess we've all got used to GPS...

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From the point of view of public interest in sciences, astronomy has immense pubic appeal, perhaps only second to dinosaurs: it has a real "wow" value. It can be readily appreciated by non-scientists and provides a brilliant entry in science education.

The other aspect of astronomy is that it en-trains other sciences: nuclear physics, high energy physics, plasma physics, fluid dynamics, relativity, radiation processes, and so on. Astronomy, or astrophysics, pushes the boundaries of and contributes to all of these subjects.

Perhaps the most remarkable, in terms of "everyday use", is Einstein's General relativity without which our GPS navigation systems would be hopelessly wrong (and difficult to correct).

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the GPS/GR thing is a bit of a myth. Sure, the clocks in orbit run faster, but all at the same rate. So an empirical correction would work just as well. SR is definitely needed though. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries May 16 '16 at 14:01
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Coming late to the party:

I don't want to jump into the game of weighing one scientific discipline against another - this is plain stupid. Saying that Romanistic is less valuable to mankind than Geoscience is nonsense. We can argue what a valuable science is, but the result of that discussion is purely subjective.

What about philosophy - the origin of all scientific research? Zero immediate economic return.

Pure fundamental research does not have any other goal except curiosity. Einsteins theory of relativity or quantum theory were considered without any practical application for decades! Now you own a gazilion devices at your home that contain laser LEDs and carry around GPS devices in your pocket.

i just wanted to share a few pointers that you can find easily via Google:

"What have the Astronomers ever done for us" So if you ever used a calendar, a GPS to navigate your car, were in need of MRT or own a CCD-Camera the practical use of astronomy should be obvious to you.

Astronomy in Everyday Life

Why is Astronomy Important? - arXiv An article by Dr. Robert Aitken

Benefits to the Nation from Astronomy

Astronomy is maybe the most basic scientific discipline. From its start mankind was looking up to the stars and wondering about the universe. <\rant>

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Other fields of science don't "draw from Astronomy" the same way they don't "draw from cartography". It may not be increasing the technology we have right now, but it will help us get around much safer once we're out in the universe. Basically right now we have an extremely detailed (every single road) map of the entire United States (or other very large country) but we can only walk. We know a large quantity of information that is not currently useful. Get a car (spaceship) that can go far and suddenly all that information becomes much more useful. You know where to go to get fuel, where you want to sightsee, where you want to shop. It is not useful in and of itself, but it is extraordinarily useful at increasing the efficiency of other activities once you can use it properly.

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  • $\begingroup$ Astronomy encompasses more than just mapping out the universe, doesn't it? Wouldn't all the physics of the universe be under the umbrella of astronomy as well? And are those physics useful in practical applications? $\endgroup$ – Scottie Apr 1 '15 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ NASA defines astronomy as "the study of stars, planets and space". Honestly I'd say the physics of the universe are the same as the physics of earth, so most everything we see would already be covered by earthbound physics. I'm sure some laws of physics can only be observed/discovered at sizes and speeds only observable through astronomy, but on the other hand I doubt those would have practical applications. Maybe we'd be able to discover loopholes in fusion or some such based on spectroscopic analysis of stars? I'm not sure what else we could be looking at. Someone else might know better. $\endgroup$ – Robert Wertz Apr 1 '15 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ I can't comment on other people's posts yet >.< I'm not sure I agree with Pela's answer to be honest. I might be overly narrow in my definition of astronomy but I feel like most of his answer deals more with space exploration or rocket science rather than just studying the stars and other planets. Maybe something to consider would be studying Venus's greenhouse gas effects will (has?) help us understand the effects of similar gases on our own planet. Studying the weather on other planets in general might help our own weather models. $\endgroup$ – Robert Wertz Apr 1 '15 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, he did say "spin offs". $\endgroup$ – Scottie Apr 1 '15 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough. I wasn't sure how tightly you wanted the answers tied to astronomy itself versus related fields. $\endgroup$ – Robert Wertz Apr 1 '15 at 20:06
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Everything is in space. Everything! Where else would it be? So anything anyone imagine as "practical", is in space. It is the only place to go.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh, someone doesn't like my argument, although it is so true that it is a truism. Few question the value of investigating or moving to different locations on the surface of the Earth. Well, the surface of the Earth is in space. When you walk you travel through space. And there's a deeper third dimension to this superficiality, undiscovered by those who never look up. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Apr 8 '15 at 15:27
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No, there isn't a practical value. How much was wasted on the Hubble Telescope, then how much more was wasted correcting the lenses to actually get a clear picture? How much was wasted on a Mars Lander that crashed upon arrival?

If people want to pay for astronomy out of their pocket, fine. Don't dig into mine just so I can hear about how some galaxy was doing 10 billion years ago. If anything spend the money on oceanography- an area that is of much greater concern to those of us living here and not in the clouds.

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