By Michael Banks
This month was undoubtedly a good time to be an astronomer. The European Space Agency launched the Herschel and Planck satellites that will map the geometry of the universe and study the formation of the earliest galaxies.
While NASA astronauts upgraded and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope to extend the mission’s life until 2014 and giving it increased resolving power to image galaxies in even more detail.
One would think that these missions, in conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy, would help astronomy grow in the public’s imagination. So this year is perhaps a good time as any to take stock and improve how astronomers are perceived by the public.
Michael West, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), has documented some examples of how astronomers in the past have been revered, reviled and also ridiculed as well as offering some ideas about how astronomers can improve their public image.
But why do astronomers care about their image? Well, according to West most developed countries spending on astronomy “is usually equivalent to the cost of one or two cups of coffee per resident” so during times of economic difficulty astronomy could be a tempting subject to cut.
Indeed, astronomers in the UK might concur with West as the UK recently cancelled funding for the Clover telescope, which would have searched for the signatures of gravitational waves in the Comic Microwave Background.
So as astronomy is funded by the taxpayer and also needs the support of politicians to get funding, West points out that the image of astronomy matters greatly.
West documents a number of examples when astronomers had enjoyed favourable public opinion or even elite status including a time as far back as 840 AD when an imperial edict issued by the Tang dynasty said that Chinese astronomers “are on no account to mix with civil servants and common people.”
More recently, West points to a poll in the New York Times in 2005 where the public voted the fifth most prestigious occupation as being an astronomer or physicist.
But perceptions have not always been so rosy. According to West, the recent debacle when the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of its planet status was a “public relations disaster” causing the public to express their outrage about the decision.
West points to a review of the fiasco by astronomers David Jewitt at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and Jane Luu at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They conclude that the public perception of astronomers has been damaged as a result and that “millions of people now think of astronomers as having too much time on their hands and are unable to articulate the most basic definitions.”
So what are his solutions? Not surprisingly, West says that astronomers must learn to communicate with the public and points to a programme run at ESO that gives astronomers media training and helps them become better science communicators.
West also says that astronomers should join the social networking bandwagon and use websites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as writing blogs to communicate their results to the public.
Indeed, the astronomer Edward Bigelow noted in a letter to the magazine Popular Astronomy that “the greatest present need of astronomy, is not more big telescopes and big observatories, but a more favourable public opinion.” That was not in 2009, but 1916. Almost 100 years later, West sees these sentiments just as relevant today.