Astronomy in Everyday Life

November 6, 2013 — 3 Comments

Astronomers are sometimes asked to defend public funding of their work. It’s difficult to answer because I really do think that there are lots of things we should do just because they’re interesting and enriching and that science shouldn’t be limited be what is economically beneficial. That said, astronomy is often given an easy ride because it is pretty and we have people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain on our side. One approach is talk about how much useful stuff astronomy has produced.

When you look around your life – and your house – you’d be surprised at how much is connected to astronomy and space exploration. Assuming you’re like me (i.e. living in the UK in 2013) you probably own several pieces of space-based technology. For a start you most likely use WiFi – in fact you might be reading this via WiFi right now! WiFi is based on work by John O’Sullivan working at CSIRO in Australia. The WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) provided by your router results from technology developed by Radio Astronomers in Australia, More than a billion people are using it in 2013!


There’s also your GPS device. GPS determines your position by receiving the signals given off by a network of satellites orbiting the Earth. By comparing the time delay in the arrival of the different signals, the GPS chip can figure out its exact latitude and longitude to within about 10m. The GPS system not only involves satellites but each of those satellites houses an atomic clock and must incorporate Einstein’s equations for general relativity in order to know its position precisely [1]. It might be the most space-aged thing you own!

There’s a small chance that you sleep on a Memory Foam mattress or pillow. Memory Foam was created by NASA in 1966 (in fact it was created by people being contracted by NASA) to develop a way to better cushion and secure people going in to space [3]. Similarly iodine water filters derive from NASA work in the 1970s to create safe drinking water on long missions and scratch-resistant glass coatings were created to create better visors for astronauts.

Memory Foam

Contrary to popular belief, Teflon (the non-stick courting on saucepans) was not invented by NASA for the Apollo programme. In fact, it already existed and was simply used by NASA, who may have helped popularise it in industry at the time. I’ll also not mention CCDs here, since I’m no longer sure that astronomy had much to do with their success! [2].

Outside of your home, there are many other places where the technology results from space research. There is a great deal of medical tech that comes from space exploration, which shouldn’t be surprising given that both fields are often trying to see or detect things in tricky or unusual environments. Software for detecting things in satellite imagery is being applied in medicine, including to detect the signs of Alzheimer’s disease in brain scan data. The detection of breast cancer tumours was vastly improved by techniques in radio astronomy and instruments than began as ways to delicately monitor the temperature of fragile telescope instruments is being used in neonatal care today. At the airport the X-Ray scanner uses tech derived from X-Ray telescopes [4] and they may sometimes check your bag or coat for traces of certain chemicals by placing it in a gas-chromatograph which was originally designed for a Mars mission [4].

Astronomers are often also coders and software developers. As well being responsible for the 2008 banking fiasco (I’m joking, maybe) they are also good at creating software that others find very handy. The visualisation software IDL is many astronomers’ language of choice and was developed developed in the 1970s at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder [5]. IDL is used in lots of research today in areas including defence, climate monitoring and by companies like Texaco, BP, and General Motors [6].


All of this is just the practical, modern stuff. Let’s not forget another thing you hold very dear: time itself. The calendar, especially it’s handy monthly segments, are astronomical in origin. The second, which seems so commonplace (i.e. it happens all the time) was defined in terms of the Earth’s rotation until astronomers realised that the length of a day was changing and so suggested a switch to defining it in terms of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Then we realised using an atomic clock would make more sense and handed our time-deiing powers over to the particle physicists [7].

Finally I just want to say that yesterday a paper appeared on the arXiv titled ‘Why is Astronomy Important?’ and it prompted me to finished this blog post about astronomy in everyday life, which I’ve had kicking around for ages. A big thanks to Marissa Rosenberg, Pedro Russo, Georgia Bladon, and Lars Lindberg Christensen for their timely paper – and their handy references!

UPDATE: There are also two handy booklets on this topic from the Royal Astronomical Society, you can find them here and here.


  2. If you’re in to digital photography then you may have debated the benefits of the CMOS and CCD imaging technologies. All digital cameras, camera phones and webcams use one of these two types of tech. CCDs were developed in 1969 at Bell Labs (the 2009 Nobel Prize was awarded to its inventors Smith and Boyle) and they became very popular in astronomy. CCDs are said to have popularised by their use in the Hubble Space Telescope but I’m not sure I buy it and can’t find evidence for it.

3 responses to Astronomy in Everyday Life

    Michael Merrifield November 8, 2013 at 11:19

    I must reiterate that we have to be very *very* careful when making this kind of argument.

    The obvious response to arguing that wifi came out of astronomy is that it would almost certainly have been invented anyway, and that if as a society we want things like wifi then it would be much more cost-effective to fund an initiative to develop a wireless protocol for computer communication than to fund the entire infrastructure of astronomy. If you try to counter with a serendipity argument, then you face the equally-powerful argument that serendipity can be found anywhere, so why not fund “useful” research and benefit from the serendipity from that as a win-win funding regime.

    Trying to argue that astronomy should be funded because of its spinoffs is an argument that we are doomed to lose, and will simply make us look disingenuous because it so obviously isn’t our motivation for doing the subject. Rather than coming across as the weakest of the cases for arguing for Government funding on the basis of the technological return, surely we would be better off presenting the strongest case for a cultural investment, with the almost unique selling point that it is a cultural investment with a very direct technological return that pays back the investment many times over.


    I agree with you Michael, as I attempted to state in my opening sentences – though I may have muddled my message.

    However I do not agree with your point that WiFi would be invented anyway. You can’t say that it would be more cost-effective to hire people to develop things, since you don’t always know that you want to develop them. The serendipitous discoveries and inventions that come out of science are not necessarily meant to have commercial or social value but sometimes they do all the same.

    Astrophysics and space exploration are well placed to accidentally produce these kinds of things because they are focussed on asking unusual questions, often unhindered by some sort of profit-motive.

    Surely that is a good thing, and worth arguing as a benefit of blue-skies research. It doesn’t have to be the main argument, but it’s at least one that is easily accessible to everyone.

    Michael Merrifield November 8, 2013 at 12:17

    As an argument that would be a very hard sell, as there are plenty of counter-example. For example, wifi, may have sprung up serendipitously with no practical motivation, but the internet itself came into being from a very focused piece of military development.

    I fully agree that it is part of the story; all we have to be careful about is that we don’t try and present it is the leading argument for *why* the research should be funded, as I don’t think we can ever win if we argue things that way. “Astronomy is culture that costs less than nothing because of its spinoffs,” on the other hand, is a credible and winnable argument.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s