Star Power: Cultural, Economic, and Educational Impacts of Astronomy

  • Megan E. Donahue
  • Professor
  • Department of Physics and Astronomy
  • College of Natural Science
Hubble drifts over Earth after its release on May 19, 2009, by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Astronomy has been called the "oldest science" because people have been looking up in the sky and contemplating what it means since civilizations developed intellectual capacities.

According to Megan Donahue, astronomy bridges cultural barriers because everyone has access to the stars. Dr. Donahue is on the steering committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Office of Astronomy for Development and, along with other fellow astronomers and astrophysicists, is working to introduce science into communities, make the connection between education and good jobs, and boost economic development and the infrastructure in some of the poorest communities around the world.

It's hard to know when Donahue rests. She conducts astronomy and astrophysics research, teaches astronomy, authors textbooks, delivers public talks about astronomy, and shares her scientific expertise with local, national, and international communities. She is on the astrophysics oversight committee for NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, where she guides the efforts the nation spends on space research into the most fruitful and scientifically interesting areas.

Studying the Evolution of Galaxies

Two years ago Donahue became a member of an international team of scientists studying some of the most massive clusters of galaxies in the universe. The Cluster Lensing and Supernova with Hubble (CLASH) program was awarded 524 out of approximately 2,200 orbits during three observation times between 2010 and 2013. Those 750 valuable hours of time with the Hubble Space Telescope have been utilized to map the dark matter in galaxy clusters using gravitational lensing, detect very distant supernovae (exploding stars), detect some of the unknown distant galaxies, and study the structure and evolution of galaxies.

The CLASH team has documented the discovery of MACS 1149-JD, a galaxy that formed 490 million years after the Big Bang, at the time when the universe was less than four percent of its current age.

The work continues around the clock, making dialogue with colleagues from different parts of the world a time challenge. The CLASH scientists try to schedule weekly telephone conferences, and with participants spanning the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, and Israel it means that at least one scientist always calls in outside of their normal working hours. Donahue checks her email regularly to answer questions, review proposals and edit drafts. She also spends a fair amount of her time downloading data from the team websites, writing data analysis programs, and analyzing data.

International Year of Astronomy

"I see astronomy as a catalyst for producing an educated and scientifically aware society."

Megan Donahue

As a member of the American Astronomical Society Council, Donahue voted her support for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) 2009, a global effort organized and coordinated by the IAU and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and supported by nearly all of the countries in the world. The vision was to help citizens worldwide rediscover how science impacts their lives, particularly through astronomy examples in the daytime and nighttime sky, recognizing that sharing these fundamental scientific wonders could lead to a more equitable and peaceful society.

The yearlong effort inspired ideas about how to motivate children and adults to learn more about scientific concepts and the world around them.

"Someone developed an inexpensive telescope that could be put together by non-experts for under $10. It's as good as Galileo's scope was 400 years ago; it shows Saturn's rings, moon craters, and other sorts of things. Donors would buy the scopes and give them to schools. It was a huge success. There were community astronomy festivals that included artists, kite flying and other activities. People really became enthusiastic about the science of astronomy," said Donahue.

She has been on the steering committee for the IAU's Office of Astronomy for Development since 2011. The goal is to continue the momentum of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, and provide a clearinghouse for international outreach efforts around the world.

Megan Donahue

"One of our goals is to enhance local economies via astronomy outreach. That can be done by stimulating the development of communications and technology, and motivating education in science and technology."

Megan Donahue

"One of our goals is to enhance local economies via astronomy outreach. That can be done by stimulating the development of communications and technology, and motivating education in science and technology," said Donahue.

Economic and Educational Impacts on Regional Communities

According to Donahue, astronomy can link people in developing countries with an opportunity to learn, study, and use science in their lives and in their local economies.

Donahue points to the South African Astronomical Observatory, established in 1972. The Southern African Large Telescope near Capetown, South Africa, is one of the largest observatories in the world. "The South African government recognizes that the observatory is an important part of their community. It's a civilian effort that provides jobs, inspires local students to learn about science, brings about technology infrastructure development such as the Internet, and has a stable influence over the economy," said Donahue.

"The National Astronomical Observatory of Chile—and its astronomical discoveries and contributions to the global science community—is a visible example of national pride. The telescope plays a prominent role in Chile's national identity, and more broadly identifies its success with economic success for all," said Donahue.

Introducing astronomy intrigues children and adults, and learning about the fundamental concepts can encourage exploration and education in math, engineering, science, technology and teaching careers. "I see astronomy as a catalyst for producing an educated and scientifically aware society," said Donahue.

Some of her best professional moments have come during solitary times. "When I discovered a supernova for the first time I remember sitting there and realizing that I'm the only person in the world that knows this exists. It is profound, awe-inspiring. Then the work begins anew with next steps to convey discoveries and educate the public. And I'm really honored to be a part of it."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement

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