Astronomy: we’ve all got stars in our eyes

Brian Cox (left) and Dara O Briain; and a child using a telescope
Reach for the sky: left, Prof Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain present 'Stargazing Live’ on BBC Two. The 'Cox Effect’ has been credited with attracting youngsters to science

From today’s paper: Astronomy used to be a hobby that was shunned at puberty – now it is the toast of stage and screen

When did astronomy become so mainstream? A few years ago, it was thought of as the stuff of introverted hobbyists in suburban attics, telescope trained through a skylight while their spouse watched television downstairs. Now it’s taking over the small screen – astronomy is the poster child for the new pop-science culture, in which the word “geek” is a compliment and people show off their knowledge of particle physics in the way they used to name-drop obscure indie bands.

If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s not. In recent years, the BBC series Wonders of the Universe made Professor Brian Cox, the ever-smiling Mancunian physicist, one of the biggest names on British TV, with its combination of extraordinary visuals and Cox’s boyish zeal. As a result of his latest show, BBC Two’s Stargazing Live, sales of astronomical telescopes have gone up sixfold. The revamped version of The Sky at Night, this newspaper’s long-running stargazing column (which appears on the first Monday of every month), has excited great interest. And the new must-see West End play is not an adaptation of Chekhov, or a broad musical comedy featuring a sitcom actor, but Constellations, a drama by Nick Payne which has astronomy as its central theme. Yesterday, our own Charles Spencer gave it a glowing five-star review, praising the way it addresses relativity and quantum mechanics, the twin theories of physics which cover the astronomically large and infinitesimally small respectively, but stubbornly fail to meet in the middle.

Where has this newfound enthusiasm come from? Dr Stuart Clark, an astronomer who has done his own part in getting his field into popular culture by writing The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, a novel about the lives of the great astronomical pioneers Galileo and Kepler, has a theory. “I think the reason is that, despite the stereotype of the coldly objective scientist, astronomy stirs us at our deepest emotional level. Images of the planets and the wider universe are works of art in their own right – more beautiful than anything science fiction artists could imagine – and it fills us with wonder.”

Colin Stuart, an astronomer who presents planetarium shows at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory, agrees. “One of the appeals of astronomy is that it taps into our primitive side. A beautiful picture from a space telescope gives you that same sense of awe that you get when seeing a spectacular sunset or great view from a hilltop,” he says. “That’s something the other sciences don’t have as much of – the Higgs boson, for example, is a crucial part of our understanding of the universe, but you can’t put a pretty poster of it on your wall.”

And as well as the sheer visual splendour, there is a deeper beauty to astronomy, in that it provides a window to our own origins, and that of the universe. “It tackles the big questions we all ask, such as where did we come from and why are we here,” says Stuart. During the 20th century, it was the astronomer Edwin Hubble who noticed that distant stars were redder than nearer ones. He realised that this meant that they were flying away from us faster, and that this in turn meant that the universe was expanding – which implied that, at some point in the past, it had expanded from a single point. So the universe had not existed forever: it had a beginning, the Big Bang. Now it is through the work of other astronomers and cosmologists that we know, with reasonable confidence, when that beginning was – 13.7 billion years ago.

As well as the natural beauty and wonder of the subject, the history of astronomy is littered with fascinating characters. Galileo, the subject of Dr Clark’s book, was placed under house arrest by the Church for saying that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around; Tycho Brahe, a contemporary of Galileo, had a golden prosthetic nose fitted after he lost his in a duel, and kept a clairvoyant dwarf in his entourage. Even the great Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of gravity and the laws of motion, was also an alchemist and occultist, and believed in his own, bizarrely heretical version of Christianity.

These facts, however, have always been true. So why has astronomy taken off now? Well, the “Cox Effect” is certainly a factor – it has been credited with pushing up the numbers taking A-level physics and chemistry by almost 20 per cent, and maths by a whopping 40 per cent, although any scientist would warn you about the risks of confusing correlation with causation. After Prof Cox’s latest venture, the Stargazing Live show he co-hosts with the comedian (and theoretical physics BSc) Dara O’Briain, reported that sales of telescopes leapt nearly 500 per cent.

It’s all part of a wider interest in science and scepticism, says Dr Adam Rutherford, a geneticist and science TV presenter. “Science shows like Robin Ince’s Uncaged Monkeys are selling out medium-sized rock venues with particle physics and comedy. That just didn’t happen a decade ago.” But he acknowledges that Cox’s success is also a factor: “There is an appetite for science, and science on telly can be the gateway drug. It makes people go out and buy telescopes, or do physics at university. Long may it continue, because when countries invest in science, everyone benefits.”

The overall effect has been to bring astronomy, previously seen as arcane and impenetrable, out into the sunlight – or the starlight. “Loads of us love astronomy as kids, but it seems to fade as we get older,” says Stuart. “For some reason it’s not cool to be into science after the age of 12 – or at least that used to be the case. Recently it’s become socially acceptable to be a geek.” Dr Clark concurs: “It’s now cool to be nerdy. Anyone from any walk of life can admit to liking astronomy.”

There have been mutterings that this pop-astronomy bandwagon has run its course. But as Helen Arney, part of the science-comedy Festival of the Spoken Nerd, which sold out the Bloomsbury Theatre earlier this month, points out, the interest is only an upsurge, not a new thing altogether: “Every few years, the media goes ‘Oh my goodness! Science is popular and interesting and fun!’ as if it hasn’t been any of those things before.”

Her colleague Steve Mould agrees: “This isn’t a fad, like yo-yos or whatever.” They’re right: Sir Patrick Moore’s original Sky At Night has been running for 55 years. Stargazing Live, as much as it has caught the eye, is just part of a long-standing British public fascination with the cosmos.

Even the stage smash Constellations has a predecessor: Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia, which arose from a chance meeting between Stoppard and the then-head of the Royal Society, Lord May, at a Telegraph event, dabbles in entropy and Newtonian physics.

But the interest is definitely at a high point. And it’s deserved. “Astronomy is the ultimate escapism,” says Mr Stuart. “With a bit of imagination you can transport yourself to the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn or to the stars beyond. It’s like fiction; it can transport you to another world – except astronomy is better, because it’s real.”


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