Letter: The quest for knowledge about our planet and its place in the universe

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The Independent Online
Sir: Astronomy is arguably the broadest environmental science; Lord Gladwyn (Letters, 4 December) is ill-informed if he believes that it has no direct relevance to the human race. Just a few examples will serve to make the point.

Study of other planets informs our understanding of the Earth and its atmosphere. The expression 'greenhouse effect' was coined originally to describe conditions on Venus. Planetary astronomers have the best possible appreciation of the natural state of our own planet, past and present, and any significant impact that human activities may have upon it.

The Earth is constantly bombarded by radiation and particles from the Sun. Our environment is totally conditioned by the Sun, and we are dependent on it for our existence. Understanding the workings of the stars, and in particular our own nearest star, is directly relevant to human survival.

Although exceedingly rare, a potentially disastrous impact of a comet or asteroid could threaten the Earth in the future. Such

an eventuality could be averted with sufficient warning from astronomers.

The extreme environments of space are a natural physics laboratory. Conditions that cannot possibly be reproduced on Earth exist, where fundamental theories of physics are put to the test. For centuries, navigation and time-keeping were both entirely dependent on astronomy. Only the most recent developments in space science and atomic physics have changed that.

The wonder of the universe kindles a healthy curiosity about the world we inhabit at every level, from schoolchildren to the greatest minds at work in science. Many people attracted to science by the challenge of astronomy apply the skills and knowledge they acquire to the direct benefit of human society.

But all that apart, the quest for knowledge and a desire to understand where human life fits in the entire pattern of creation is an aspect of human nature that cannot be denied or repressed. Enforced ignorance is certainly not bliss for intelligent minds. And I for one have no nostalgia for pre-Galilean days, when life expectancy was short and a person could be tortured for stating publicly that the Earth orbits the Sun.

Achieving a quality of life for all of the Earth's human inhabitants that is both satisfying for individuals and sustainable by future generations remains an elusive goal. But perhaps if there were a wider understanding of the Earth's time and place in the universe as a whole, society's problems would be viewed from a better perspective.

Yours sincerely,

JACQUELINE MITTON

Royal Astronomical Society

Cambridge

5 December

(Photograph omitted)

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