Why Study Astronomy?

Charles A. Young (1834-1908) was a prominent solar spectroscopist when Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) lured him away from Dartmouth in 1877 with a "startup" package that included a 23" Clark refractor and a Hilger spectroscope. Today he is often remembered as the teacher of the "Dean of American Astronomers" Henry Norris Russell, but his college-level textbook A Textbook of General Astronomy (1888) and high school textbook Elements of Astronomy (1889) trained many American astronomers at the turn of the century. The Introduction to his Elements of Astronomy is quoted below:
  1. Subject-Matter of Astronomy. -- Astronomy is the science which treats of the heavenly bodies. It investigates (a) their motions and the laws which govern them; (b) their nature, dimensions, and characteristics; (c) the influence they exert upon each other either by their attraction, their radiation, or in any other way.

    Astronomy is the oldest of the natural sciences: nearly the earliest records that we find in the annals of China and upon the inscribed "library bricks" of Assyria and Babylon relate to astronomical subjects, such as eclipses and the positions of the planets. Obviously in the infancy of the race the rising and setting of the sun, the progress of the seasons, and the phases of the moon must have compelled the attention of even the most unobservant.

    As Astronomy is the oldest of the sciences, so also it is one of the most perfect, and in certain aspects the noblest, as being the most "unselfish," of them all.

  2. Utility. -- Although not bearing so directly upon the material interests of life as the more modern sciences of Physics and Chemistry, it is really of high utility. It is by means of Astronomy that the latitudes and longitudes of places upon the earth's surface are determined, and by such determinations alone is it possible to conduct vessels upon the sea. If we can imagine that some morning men should awake with Astronomy forgotten, all almanacs and astronomical tables destroyed, and sextants and chronometers demolished, commerce would practically cease, and so far as intercourse by navigation is concerned, the world would be set back to the days before Columbus. Moreover, all the operations of surveying upon a large scale, such as the determination of the boundaries of countries, depend more or less upon astronomical observations. The same is true of all operations which, like the railway service, require an accurate knowledge and observance of the time; for the fundamental time-keeper is the diurnal revolution of the heavens, as determined by the astronomer's transit-instrument. In ancient times the science was supposed to have a still higher utility. It was believed that human affairs of every kind, the welfare of nations, and the life history of individuals alike, were controlled, or at least prefigured, by the motions of the stars and planets; so that from the study of the heavens it ought to be possible to predict futurity. The pseudo-science of Astrology based upon this belief really supplied the motives that led to most of the astronomical observations of the ancients. Just as modern Chemistry had its origin in Alchemy, so Astrology was the progenitor of Astronomy.

  3. Place in Education. -- Apart from the utility of Astronomy in the ordinary sense of the word, the study of the science is of the highest value as an intellectual training. No other science so operates to give us on the one hand just views of our real insignificance in the universe of space, matter, and time, or to teach us on the other hand the dignity of the human intellect as the offspring, and measurably the counterpart, of the Divine; able in a sense to "comprehend" the universe, and know its plan and meaning. The study of the science cultivates nearly every faculty of the mind; the memory, the reasoning power, and the imagination all receive from it special exercise and development. By the precise and mathematical character of many of its discussions it enforces exactness of thought and expression, and corrects that vague indefiniteness which is apt to be the result of pure literary training. On the other hand, by the beauty and grandeur of the subjects it presents, it stimulates the imagination and gratifies the poetic sense. In every way it well deserves the place which has long been assigned to it in education.

  4. The present volume does not aim to make finished astronomers of high-school pupils. That would require years of application, based upon a thorough mathematical training as a preliminary. Our little book aims only to present such a view of the elements of the science as will give the pupils of our high schools an intelligent understanding of its leading facts,-- not a mere parrot-like knowledge of them, but an understanding both of the facts themselves and of the general methods by which we ascertain them. These are easily mastered by a little attention, and that without any greater degree of mathematical knowledge than may confidently be expected of pupils in the latter years of a high-school course. Nothing but the simplest Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry will be required to enable one to deal with anything in the book, except that note and then a trigonometric equation may be given in a note or in the Appendix for the benefit of those who understand that branch of mathematics.