At one point, understanding and practicing astronomy, could well have been considered a discipline for beardy old scientists huddled around a telescope. To say that now however, might make you quite unpopular indeed. If you were to suggest today, that astronomy was only for the select few, for those with degrees or expensive equipment, then there’s a very strong chance you would be met with eye rolling and a disgruntled sigh. Maybe three million disgruntled sighs: the number of people reported to watch the recent BBC hit series, Stargazing Live.
Over the last year, astronomy has undergone a bit of a rebrand and firmly leading the way, are shows such as Stargazing Live, which aim to bring these topics to the general public’s attention. Fronted by “the face of space”, Professor Brian Cox, the show has attracted stargazers new and old and sparked a new wave of public involvement in practical science. The show has been a great step forward in connecting the average person and the scientific world, by opening up astronomy to a whole new audience.
For years, theUK research council has run campaigns to encourage public engagement in science, and whilst they have been successful at science fairs across the country, Stargazing Live has conjured up a winning formula of both online and practical involvement that has had a direct impact on the public. Stargazing Live has helped to show how accessible astronomy and other sciences are as hobbies that anyone can get involved in.
As a result, there has been a major increase in public activity. Planethunters.org is a website that relies on members of the public volunteering to look for transit events inthe light curves of images from the Kepler space observatory that might be missed by the computer algorithms.
One new visitor, Chris Holmes, who was inspired to scroll through the data after watching Brian Cox and co, was rewarded with the co-discovery of a new planet, demonstrating how even amateurs can make significant contributions to astronomy.
And it is not just individuals who have been inspired by the show. Residents in Dulverton, Somerset, were moved to switch off every light in their village in order to get the best possible view of the stars. Additionally, Amazon.co.uk has reported a 500% increase in the sales of telescopes.
Despite their successes, Stargazing Live, and Professor Brian Cox have not completely escaped critics. Many accuse the show and those with similar formats of ‘dumbing down’ science and its complexity for the masses.
Surely however, this is the attitude that puts off a lot of would-be science enthusiasts in the first place. UK scientists finally being able to talk about their work on primetime TV allows the public to engage with science in a way that they may not have been able to before. Scientists with the ability to communicate their subject with passion and enthusiasm should surely be encouraged.
The view that science is only for the select few, inaccessible to the majority of us, is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Programmes such as Stargazing Live have taken risks to help bridge the gapbetween the general public and the scientific world.