Earlier today I realized I was one day off. I showed up for a meeting on communicating astronomy to the public and found myself in a meeting on generating more accurate world coordinate systems for sky surveys. While astrometry is important, it is something that I wasn’t interested in helping advance prior to lunch. Thus, I fled.
In fleeing, I found myself in a session on how to use astronomy to develop the developing world. I sat my privileged white self down and pulled out my iPad and listened as delegates from nations as far ranging as Mozambique, Mexico, Nepal, and the Philippines presented talk after talk on how they are building a more educated future for our globe by building astronomy learning and capacity.
I was sufficiently sucked in that I didn’t remember to take the notes I should have, so I apologize that I’m about to be more vague than I would like. One presenter showed how globally the number of astronomers per nation is pretty typically one in one-million people. There are exceptions: Peru is about 4 times lower, while its near neighbor, Chile, is a little bit above average. And then there are countries like the Philippines where you can count all the astronomers on one hand. In these developing nations, it is a regular fight to try and explain the science behind things like eclipses, the lunar calendar (which is really important in Muslim countries), and a lot of misconceptions that derive from local folklore and religion.
And they’re regularly fighting.
There are just 8 universities in the country of Nepal. This means there are more places to get a higher education in Boston then in this mountain country. But in Nepal, as in so many other places in the developing world, they’re working to get more people learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and they’re doing it by adding astronomy at all levels to their schools and colleges. From South America to Southeast Asia, they have mobile astronomy vans, trucks, and even camels that bring hands on astronomy to the countryside. From Nigeria and out across the many nations of Africa, nations are working to take astronomy content off the web to put it on DVDs and other physical media that teachers can use to educate when the Internet isn’t accessible to the curious. The goal of these projects isn’t to inspire more people to become astronomers (although that may be a side effect); the goal is to build all these nations’ intellectual capacities.
I got sucked into these inspiring talks that detailed things I’d never thought about. For instance, building an observatory, like the planned SKA, in remote locations in Africa brings to that region things they may not have like clean water, electricity, and even high speed Internet.
Let me say that again: building an observatory in a remote site may bring clean running water to a place that doesn’t have it today.
A representative from South Africa put his nation’s astronomy budget in interesting terms. In his nation (a nation I loved visiting), starvation is still a very real side-effect of poverty. It is hard to consider funding a national astronomy program when hunger is real. But… He pointed out that the entire yearly astronomy budget in South Africa is enough to feed everyone one meal, but astronomy is a way to feed the future while today it is creating jobs, and providing infrastructure where it never existed before.
Last night, I went to bed with things undone on my todo list that I could have done, but I decided I wanted 8 hours sleep. Listening to these talks, i suddenly felt like my choice to sleep was selfous and greedy because I didn’t do everything i could do. Listening to this global group of men and women who don’t sleep very much because they are too busy doing, too busy working with their nation’s governments building new things – listening to them I wanted to find ways to help more and do more.
And all through the day I heard the same thing: we are doing everything we can, stretching every dollar, euro, yuan, and yen as far as we can, but if we can just get another $1000, we could…. If only we had $10,000, we will…. And the IAU is listening. At the end of the month there is a deadline for proposals for low cost, high impact projects to help grow astronomy in the developing world.
The legacy of IYA2009 is alive. The universe is being discovered in the developing world.