Like many people around the world, last Tuesday Wendee and I were wrapped up in coverage of Barak Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.
As we listened to the inauguration speech and Obama's comment that fixing our nation's woes will take all of us, we thought how appropriate this idea is for this International Year of Astronomy (IYA). At a time when much of the government's attention is being focused on the economy, motivating people to become interested in the night sky is going to be largely up to those of us in the astronomical community.
With a lifelong love of astronomy, I've seen economic downturns in the past. A recession was taking place early in 1961, shortly after I first looked through a telescope and discovered how much fun observing can be. With adults fretting about jobs and the state of the economy, I remember my dad telling me, "Everyone has a job to do, and yours is to do well in school." Regrettably, I didn't always do my "job" well. Sometimes I paid for my hours outdoors with a telescope with low marks at school.
Our current recession makes the 1961 downturn look tame. But as amateur astronomers, we can still share with others that sense of magic that brings us outdoors to look at the night sky. It's a low-cost activity, and the look on a viewer's face as he or she sees Saturn or some other "Wow!" object for the first time is beyond price.
The inauguration got me fantasizing about politics and astronomy. What if there were astronomical qualifications for holding public office? In order to be on a city council, perhaps a candidate should have some experience looking through a telescope, having spotted, say, all the Messier objects or identified 300 craters on the Moon. Maybe running for national office in the House of Representatives should require an active career observing variable stars or doing astrophotography. The Senate? How about some original contribution to astronomy being a maxim. And the presidency? A minimum of two comet discoveries should be the requirement.
Alas, such a regime would likely bestow some very capable, but thoroughly impractical leaders! Not the best way to run the world. But for those of us with our heads above the clouds, the thought is fascinating indeed.
In the real world, the IYA is getting better with each passing week. This is a great year to remind ourselves why we got into astronomy in the first place, and why we need, so desperately, to encourage that passion in future generations.