Astronomy may well be the oldest science of all. Human beings have
been studying the sun, moon, planets and stars for at least
5,000 years--ever since the scholars of ancient Mesopotamia
first began to record their observations in writing—and
probably for tens or hundreds of thousands of years before
that, ever since our remote ancestors first looked up with
curiosity and wonder.
True, astronomy has changed a bit since then. Today's astronomers
are focusing on phenomena our forbearers never imagined--planets
orbiting other stars, for example; black holes the size of our
solar system; galaxies being driven apart by invisible “dark
energy”; ripples in the fabric of space and time; and of
course the big bang, where time itself began.
Moreover, they are doing so not with their naked eyes, but with
multimillion-dollar telescopes that are marvels of precision and
high technology, not to mention being roughly the size of a ziggurat.
NSF alone operates a
whole series of astronomical facilities, ranging from optical
telescopes in Arizona, Hawaii, and Chile, to radio telescopes
in West Virginia, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and many other sites.
The agency has also deployed some decidedly unconventional “telescopes” that
watch for cosmic rays, gravity waves and invisible particles
called neutrinos. And that’s not even counting the many
observatories operated by private institutions and other nations,
nor the space-going telescopes such as Hubble, which are operated
And yet, despite everything that has changed over the millennia,
the deepest and most fundamental questions remain: