Astronomy – The Star of Popular Science?

I’ll start with a confession – despite being an ex-student of physics, I don’t find astronomy that interesting.  I’m sorry, but there it is.  I’m not quite sure why, and I have sought a psychiatric explanation, but until the results come I remain unimpressed by all those large objects very far away from me.  As a result, I’m always struck by how much space features in popular science, particularly TV broadcasting.  In fact, I’m quite fascinated by it – it’s something I’m tempted to do more systematic research into at a later date, but for now I’m collecting some largely unsystematic thoughts into an article for this worthy cause  I’ve outlined some thoughts below.  See what you think.

Many of the recognisable themes in today’s popular science link science with media concerns in quite a clear way.  The regular appearance of biomedical research and the LHC in newspapers taps into the need for a clear-cut ‘breakthrough’ story.  TV nature documentaries (Life on Earth and its ilk) follow a venerable tradition of travel documentary.  Also they’re like cheaper versions of zoos, and big animals are just great.  But the increasing presence of astronomy in popular science is less easy to explain.  Few of Britain’s leading popularisers of the physical sciences – Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili, Marcus Du Sautoy, and the like –  have a background in astronomy, and yet all have produced work drawing on the subject.  So what is it about astronomy that draws so much popular attention? And what impact might this have on public perception of the entire world of science?

Popularisers of astronomy offer many reasons for its appeal.  Carl Sagan, the granddaddy of modern popular astronomy, opens his book Cosmos (based on his immensely popular 1980 TV series – watch it, it’s a wonderful example of a real science-lover in his element) with a series of quotations tracing mankind’s fascination with space back to the earliest recorded writings.  Brian Cox gets similarly passionate about this very human “celebration of the spirit of exploration”, but also notes the practical relevance of astronomy to us on Earth; how Venus’ atmosphere can provide a site for studying the Greenhouse Effect, for instance.  But I was particularly struck by a Cox comment on the diversity of the Universe: “what an empire of riches, and what a subject for a television series”.

Thing is, pretty much all sciences can claim to appeal to human curiosity and/or relevance to mankind – a science that doesn’t have either of these is a bit scuppered.  But astronomy suits the peculiar requirements of The Media for two main reasons, both implicit in Cox’s statement.  Firstly, astronomy is one of the more photogenic sciences (and not just due to the presence of Cox).  Secondly, the universe has quite a lot of stuff in it, and a good populariser can turn this stuff to many different ends.  Astronomy can celebrate the beauty of the universe (Sagan’s Cosmos)It can provide illustrations for more general laws of physics, such as gravity or nuclear fusion (Cox’s Wonders of the Universe).  It can be used to track the history of a scientific field (Jim Al-Khalili’s Everything and Nothing).  It can be used to boost monocle sales (Patrick Moore in general).  Or finally, and to my mind most interestingly, popularisers can exploit astronomy’s significant overlap with the science of cosmology – studying the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe – to neatly link astronomy to our own origins in space.  It was astronomers who provided key evidence for the Big Bang, after all.  Notably, in the printed works of Stephen Hawking, Simon Singh etc., astronomy features as secondary to cosmological questions.  Whereas in the television work of Cox and Al-Khalili, astronomy takes a much more prominent and visible role.  If televised science is a drama, cosmology provides the script and astronomy the (nicely photogenic) actors – quite literally, the stars of the show.  I thank you.  Anyway, the idea that popular science is heavily affected by the medium of output is somewhat unsurprising.  But it does remind us that popular science does not simply involve taking ‘actual’ science and removing the more difficult bits – there are many many choices involved in how one presents a certain subject.

Let’s take a historical detour.  Astronomy has always enjoyed a certain celebrity in the scientific pantheon.  It was the first, and only, science to appear in the medieval university curriculum.  In the 19th century William Whewell – a Victorian writer on science, and the man who gave us the word ‘scientist’ – described astronomy as the “pattern science”, which all other sciences should imitate.  But in these examples astronomy clearly did not rise to prominence by fitting the requirements of television – Whewell was inventive, but not that inventive.  Instead, Whewell used astronomy as an example to people who were doing science as the model for the scientific method.  In contrast to Cox etc., Whewell focussed on the philosophical methods employed in discovering astronomical facts, rather than the facts themselves.

(I largely mention Whewell just to crowbar in a brilliant remark made by a contemporary.  Commenting simultaneously on both his lowly background and his well-known arrogance, this wag compared Whewell to Jesus, noting that ‘both were sons of carpenters who believed they were sons of God’.  Victorian wit is always memorable).

The point is that popularisers make various uses of astronomy as a rhetorical tool, employable for different purposes: to illustrate the beauty of the universe, the excitement of scientific exploration, how scientists should work, whatever.  This isn’t unique to astronomy – nuclear physics has been both a shining beacon of an energy-efficient future and an explosion-ey, mutant-ey threat.  But the current preponderance of astronomy in popular science makes one ask what impact the rhetorical choices of our popular astronomers has on the audience.  Particularly in TV astronomy, a few themes appear.  The main focus is on the universe itself, presented through a series of disembodied facts.  These facts take two forms.  Firstly, the mind-bogglingly numerical.  Secondly, the general and fundamental – a common example being that orbits and falling objects are both governed by the same laws of gravity.  We are also introduced to a few key pioneers – Isaac Newton, William Herschel, and the like.  Finally, we get a tour of some modern equipment, such as the Very Large Telescope in Chile.  Obviously, there are variations.  Cox focuses on the ‘what’ of astronomy, what we know about the universe and how it all fits into general laws of physics.  Al-Khalili, on the other hand, presents more of the ‘how’ of astronomy, the history of the ideas and discoveries.  (And there are other differences, as noted by the venerable academic Dr. Hill, 2.25min in).  But the general picture is quite similar – there is a vast universe of objects and laws out there, and through a combination of big brains and even bigger instruments we’ve discovered quite a lot of them.  The aim of the programme is to show these facts and objects, and how they fit together in a grand and elegant scheme.

Such an approach does allow a highly effective combination of entertainment and information.  And when the 6m viewers of Wonders of the Universe go away knowing more about their cosmic home (and maybe even develop that bit more respect for science as a lifestyle choice) then that’s certainly cause for celebration.  But those aforementioned themes do leave out some aspects of the scientific practice.  Most notably, the human side is downplayed.  The people discussed tend to be a) anomalous genii and b) historical, neither of them easy things for a viewer to aspire to.  And the ‘astronomy’ practiced by said figures is presented as being essentially the same subject as that practised today, just less advanced.  This isn’t really the case – for instance, the linking of astronomy and cosmology, integral to much modern astronomical work, only became acceptable in the mid-20th century, and only after a lot of dispute (the very phrase ‘Big Bang’ was coined as an insult).  The history of astronomy becomes a successive series of major discoveries, devoid of any historical context.  We get a somewhat simplistic picture of science – we might not have much say on what is actually in the universe, but human factors certainly have a say on how we study it.  We never really find out why William Herschel, who was actually a musician by trade, decided to build a vastly different telescope to his contemporaries.  And, apart from brief glimpses of impressive instruments (stop sniggering, please) we don’t get much about the work of modern astronomers.  We don’t really get many insights into the day-job of an astronomer, or the messy process of disagreement by which the astronomical community agrees on and uses its ‘facts’.

As a top-of-head alternative, it could be interesting to show how NASA goes about an investigation.  We could see science used as a practical decision-making process – do we programme using Newton’s simpler equations for gravity, or Einstein’s more accurate but more complex general relativity?  What margins of error are we prepared to tolerate on data acquired? What recent engineering advances can we employ?  Such an approach would give a very different picture of astronomy (and by extension science) to the one painted by current popular science.  We would see a more social side to science, with decision-making and compromises, to compare with the dehumanised objectivity currently favoured.

This might not be a good idea on all fronts.  With the scientific community currently acting as a very vocal opponent to creationism, alternative medicine, and the like, anything that presents science as a messy or unsure process is likely to be misappropriated.  But, on the other hand, a bit more balance could give science a more approachable air.  Dramatic imagery and biographies of genii make good emotional hooks, but they maybe present astronomy as a quite inaccessible subject, where only the super-brainy need apply.  Showing the community at work, and the work that is still ongoing, might be more of a draw to the budding scientist.  Ultimately this comes down to more general debates over media representation.  How should we balance informing and entertaining?  With the limited time and space available in a programme or piece of writing, what topics should be included?  Given the risk of information being misrepresented or misused, what information should be offered?  The current celebrity of Cox, Al-Khalili, and Singh, as well as numerous emergent schemes to develop their popularising progeny (see the BBC’s New Generation Thinkers, for example), shows that current popular science is clearly having a positive impact in terms of interest raised.  That’s essential and valuable work.  But as the field of popular science expands, should we be looking to present a more rounded picture of science as a social practice?  As well as the awe-inspiring universe of TV astronomy, is there room for another wonder of science – one that lies not only in big numbers and beautiful images, but the fact that, somehow, the conflict-ridden speculations of earth-bound beings match up to the deepest reaches of the universe?



For a more systematic look at the preponderance of certain subjects in science broadcasting, see  pp.44-49

Works I refer to in the above include: Sagan’s Cosmos and

Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe

Simon Singh’s Big Bang

Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time (and others)

Also Al-Khalili’s Everything and Nothing and Du Sautoy’s The Code (, but these don’t have print accompaniments.

For a classic, if somewhat old, look at links between astronomy and cosmology, see J.G. Whitrow and H. Bondi’s argument in Is Physical Cosmology a Science?  Easy to find if you have access to an online library, maybe not otherwise.  There’s also more modern stuff by the historian Helge Kragh.

Whewell’s discussions of astronomy as a “pattern science” can be found in his History of the Inductive Sciences and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, available on Google Books.

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One Response to Astronomy – The Star of Popular Science?

  1. Pingback: The Expanding Universe of TV Science | sidewayslookatscience

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