365daysDate: September 23, 2009

Title: Looking for a reason. Why Astronomy?


Podcaster: Richard Saunders of Skeptic Zone

Organization: The Skeptic Zone Podcast:

Description: Richard Saunders asks leading astronomers and others why they think people choose a career in star gazing.

Bio: The Skeptic Zone Podcast – The Podcast from Australia for Science and Reason, produced by Richard Saunders is Australia’s leading skeptical podcast with reports from around the world.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, the major organization for professional astronomers in North America, whose members remind everyone that One Sky Connects Us All. Find out more or join the AAS at


Hello. This is Richard Saunders from Sydney Australia, producer of the Skeptic Zone Podcast at

I’d like, in this episode of the 365 days of astronomy podcast, to explore inner space… the way people think. I’m looking for the reason that so many intelligent people turn their back on maybe medicine, politics, artistic endeavours, archaeology, palaeontology, or even a business career, and embrace astronomy.

Am I looking for a logical reason? Am I looking for a romantic reason? Or is it somewhere in the middle in a blur of logic and emotions that make us human.

Why astronomy? I put this question to astronomer, educator, and podcaster Dr. Pamela Gay.

Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s kind of one of those things that; I tried lots of other paths, I tried opening lots of other doors and none of them held my interest. I was a magazine editor for a year, I started off college as a joint degree with international relations, and I love writing, and I love sociology, and the human interacts that go into trying to run big international projects and make things work. But the Universe has so many more questions, so many more deeper questions that, that path never presented a wall of, “Okay we found an answer, and it’s kind of ugly.” Instead it’s, “We found a question and the question’s kind of ugly because we’re not sure how to find the answer.” And I’d rather live in a world with ugly, hard to answer questions, than ugly answers that I don’t want to deal with, and astronomy’s one of those places where it’s the questions that are ugly and the answers that are beautiful.

Richard Saunders: You can hear the sense of wonder in Pamela’s voice. The longing to step into the real unknown and to address very big questions.

Now let’s hear the answer given by Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, Dr. Seth Shostak.

Dr. Seth Shostak: Yeah, I ask that question myself frequently, actually, because there are interests I have. The trouble is life’s too short. But I think it’s simply that this is a big picture question. It is something I was interested in when I was a kid, right? I got interested in astronomy, and, for that matter, the idea of life in space, very young, somewhere between 8 and 10, right? I built a telescope by age 10. That’s not unusually. Most kids get interested in something between 8 and 11, and if you’re interested in astronomy you know, building a telescope’s not such an odd thing to have done.

But I think what I like about it is that it is answering a big question, or at least it has the opportunity to answer a really big question. I mean, you know, my cousin goes into securities law or something like that and that’s interesting but on the other hand, you know, the securities law he knows isn’t particularly good in maybe Japan or something else right? It’s not a very broad field of interest. And, you know, he labors away and pays the bills and eats a good dinner every now and then. But here you have the opportunity, and I actually consider it a privilege, to work on a question that if you could answer it would be of interest forever. And so I think that’s what it is. It’s that you’re looking at big picture questions here and that is what appeals to me.

Richard Saunders: So, Seth Shostak considers what he does a privilege. Something so much more meaningful than maybe another career path he could have chosen. Again we find that it’s the pondering of the big questions that capture the imagination and provide motivation.

We hear now from someone just starting out. Moriel Schottlender is an astronomy student in NYC. Why does she think people chose this path in life?

Moriel Schottlender: Oh wow. Well… I’m biased, I also chose astronomy. I think there’s something just fascinating about space, because it’s very easy to get fascinated about space. All you need to do is go out at night and just look up and you see the stars and you get curious. And it’s so easy to just look at the moon even with the naked eye and just look and ask questions and it’s really, really fascinating. There are so many movies about space that feed into that, you know, innate curiosity that we have about our Universe, and our planet and where we are. I think something that is tapping into a lot of peoples’ feeling about this and a lot of the time I think a lot of the people who go into astronomy… I see it at least with the students that study with me; it’s more about theories, the stories, the looking up. Even if you are a theoretical astronomer something like with math or something like that, still the stories, the looking up, the sharing the experience of just looking at space or building a telescope yourself or just getting a really strong telescope and then seeing even better out there. All those things are just incredible. And it seems to me that they are a lot more reachable and a lot more available for a lot of people than a lot of other subjects in science and in physics because it’s just all around us.

Richard Saunders: With out doubt Moriel’s sense of wonder is taking the rest of her along for the ride. Good luck Moriel. I hope you are the first woman on the moon.

Let’s turn to someone who is not an astronomer, but nevertheless has a particular interest in this podcast. The man who wrote and sings the theme song Far for 365 days, George Hrab.

George Hrab: Out of all the sciences, there’s something unique about astronomy. What appeals to many is its potential to remind us where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going. The first conscious observers of the natural world gazed at the very same stars that we look at and I think there is a pan-generational connection that unites those early astronomers and us. Our proto-scientific forefathers weren’t looking at mitochondrial DNA or analyzing germs or determining seismic shifts in plate tectonics. But they were looking at the very same sky we see. And even though the methodology and sheer accuracy of that observation has changed a million fold, that essential connection reminds us of how far we’ve come and far we can still go, literary to the ends of the Universe. What else has been with us since humans first realized they were well, human? Science, but most particularly astronomy appeals to both the factual and fantastic duality in each of us.

Richard Saunders: And what does it mean for you? You who have downloaded this podcast, you that have been listening to this series since the beginning of January and will keep listening until the end of December. Somehow, I think you already know the answer, and I bet it’s not too dissimilar from the ones we’re just heard.

I’ll leave you with the words of someone who, many years ago, inspired me to explore the Universe as revealed to us by the method of science:

The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. — Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Episode One: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

Thanks to Pamela Gay, Seth Shostak, Moriel Schottlender, and George Hrab.

This has been Richard Saunders from Sydney, Australia, for the Skeptic
Zone Podcast at

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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