Is astronomy relevant for developing countries, or is it just a science for the elite with little relevance?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The cutest observatory ever? This one's located in Potsdam.

My natural inclination is to say that of course astronomy is relevant to developing countries, since one of the most fearsome obstacles to a country's long-term development is the brain drain of well-educated people to more developed and stable countries. If a developing country isn't able to provide enough incentive for those interested in the field to stay then they well naturally have to move to another country to fulfill their career interests, and the rich country that inherits the scientist / astronomer then benefits from this.

Radio Netherlands has an article on this subject here, where it talks about the effect of investment in astronomy on South Africa.
As the new millennium started, so did the construction work on the Southern African Large Telescope, or, as we know it, SALT. The Telescope has stimulated the country's economy, with local industry making around 60 percent of the telescope's components.

It has also boosted tourism and created new jobs. In the first year after opening, the annual number of visitors to the small town of Sutherland jumped from a few hundred to over 13,000.

A growing number of African companies are also capitalising on the interest in astronomy, using 'amateur' telescopes to attract foreign visitors and corporate companies.

Take Namibia, for example. As a result of their new telescopes in Gamsberg Pass, farmers in the area have set up small telescopes in their back gardens for visiting amateur astronomers to use.

The Namibian example also illustrates the trickle down from astronomy - switching devices developed for the telescope are now being used in industry. But focussing on specific examples like this overlooks one of the most important ways astronomy can help development. Many cultures have long histories of indigenous astronomy that offer an easy route for introducing a modern understanding of the universe. The science of the stars really inspires the general public's interest in science.
That last point is also really interesting, as it's also true that less-developed countries also have the darkest skies, so instead of seeing just a few dozen stars at night like we do in the city, their sky looks more like this one:

So in fact, your average citizen from a less developed country will know more about the night sky than someone from a well developed country that has grown up in the city and doesn't spend all that much time reading about space.

Less developed countries that want to encourage an interest in astronomy for their citizens might want to think about purchasing a certain amount of Galileoscopes for students to try out. Each one costs a mere $15, and one or a few scopes per school might even be possible for a relatively poor country.


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