What is astronomy?

Photo By: Brian Berg

What is astronomy? I think deeply about this question as I write my second column for Eyepiece, now as a board-member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

Is it staring at the stars on a clear night?  Or looking for stars on a cloudy evening? How about spending countless hours watching Star Trek and wondering when humans will gather together, put aside our petty differences and absolute greed, and invest in bettering our species and directly exploring the galaxy in which we live (while fighting Klingons and Romulans)?

I took a long walk some nights ago and stood staring for a few long minutes at the full moon. Maybe that qualifies?

I attended a lecture last month given by a physicist who spoke about future exoplanet exploration, and I asked a couple of questions after he finished his talk. Does that count as “astronomy”?

Perhaps when I read that there are people not only on our planet, but in our country, who believe that the Earth is flat (in 2018!!), and I speak with friends about it and discuss the absurdity of this belief as well as the scientific proof to invalidate this thinking, that that qualifies as “astronomy”?

I know that the word “astronomy” is derived from the Greek, meaning “star arrangement”. And it is defined as “the science that deals with the material universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere”. But what is the material universe? And what is science?

Is sitting around thinking about what dark matter could possibly be part of the material universe? Or does “material” mean something tangible such as a planet? My head is starting to hurt!

And does throwing out a few simple facts (I am not even sure we know what facts are anymore in the age of “the truth isn’t the truth”) to easily disprove flat-earthers qualify as science? Maybe if I was wearing a white lab coat when stating those facts, then it undeniably would count as science.

My head is spinning. Is it spinning in the same direction as the Earth? If I think about that, am I engaging in astronomy?

How can I be a board-member when I cannot even define “astronomy’” Am I bringing shame to the AAA?

But I have been looking at the pictures and the videos that the members of AAA who do astrophotography post online. Isn’t that astronomy? Or maybe that’s too passive.

And I have been giving lots of ideas to my fellow board-members of what we can do to keep the club successful well into the future. Maybe that just makes me a good board-member, but not a participant in astronomy.

Hang on, I think I’ve figured this out… I was excited to learn that Neil deGrasse Tyson (an AAA member) is continuing the Cosmos TV series. I have spoken about the initial season of the show to so many friends, and discussed topics that were presented in the show, that I have most definitely been responsible for Netflix having more viewers of the show. That’s got to be astronomy.

Or am I just guilty of giving Netflix even more viewers (I didn’t think that was possible)?

I have traveled to Chile for the express purpose of trekking to the Atacama Desert and visiting the ALMA facility. And while there, I was outside in the middle of the desert at midnight, alongside astronomers and fellow observers, looking at the band of the milky way overhead, shining brightly in the dry desert sky. Now that has to be astronomy!

Or maybe it was just a cool trip.

When I went to Kennedy Space Center a few years ago, and after having lunch with an astronaut, I then went to the newly built Space Shuttle Pavilion. And as I worked my way through the very well-designed Pavilion that paid tribute to not only astronauts, but also the myriad behind the scenes workers who figured out the engineering, financing, and other less-sexy parts of NASA, I finally was presented with the big reveal! Walls shifted. A seemingly immobile structure moved. As if out of nowhere, the Space Shuttle was in front of me. I am pretty sure that no one saw my eyes well up. Was I participating in astronomy then? Or just being a sentimental observer of humanity achieving what had previously been thought to be impossible.


So, what is astronomy? I still don’t know. But you know what… I am going to keep trying my hardest to find out! And I hope you all do, too!

What is astronomy?