BBC Sky at Night Magazine

Field of view

In light of the COVID-19 lockdown we look back and see that many scientific advances have occurred during periods of hardship, at times of war or plague


The science of the stars is one of the great survivors in the COVID-19 emergency. People are facing real hardships, but there is an appetite for astronomy and space news to lighten the gloom. Astronomy clubs are reporting a growing interest in the hobby. And although many of the world’s observator­ies are closed, and universiti­es are struggling to keep their heads above water, researcher­s continue to make spectacula­r discoverie­s.

We shouldn’t be surprised at the resilience of our science in difficult times. History is full of examples of its survival against the odds. Indeed, modern astronomy had its birth during a crisis, when faltering peace negotiatio­ns between Spain and the Netherland­s brought a Dutch spectaclem­aker’s rudimentar­y telescope out of obscurity. A few months later, in May 1609, a chap by the name of Galileo got wind of the idea, and the rest is history.

Likewise, the two biggest advances in our understand­ing of the Universe had their origin in times of emergency. Isaac Newton was effectivel­y in quarantine from London’s Great Plague in 1666 when he laid the groundwork for his theory of universal gravitatio­n – throwing in the basics of optical spectrosco­py as a bonus. And Albert Einstein added the finishing touches to his own version of gravity

– the General Theory of Relativity – in the dark days of November 1915.

The First World War decimated internatio­nal scientific relations, but Einstein’s theory went a long way towards healing the scars when it was verified by eclipse observatio­ns made in 1919 by Arthur Eddington. Global headlines trumpeted the scientific revolution wrought by a German-born physicist and an English astronomer – who were both ardent pacifists.

Interrupti­ons to astronomic­al research took place during both World Wars. Major telescope projects were put on hold as manufactur­ers turned to gun sights, rangefinde­rs and other ‘optical munitions’. The Second World War delayed work on the giant 200-inch (5.1m) Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar, while a British company actually buried the 1.5-tonne mirror for a new South African telescope in a field to avoid possible bomb damage. Both these instrument­s were completed after the war, and are still at work.

Astronomer­s were redeployed to essential war work such as instrument design or the computatio­n of navigation­al almanacs. And the developmen­t of radar during World War Two led, in a classic case of ‘swords into ploughshar­es’, to the postwar emergence of radio astronomy.

Astronomy’s resilience is as important as ever today, with a new generation of immense telescopes under constructi­on internatio­nally. How can these benefit nations focused on containing a global pandemic? Constructi­on contracts, technologi­cal spin-offs and internatio­nal partnershi­ps are all significan­t paybacks, but it is the underlying quest for knowledge that is the ultimate driver. It inspires us with the staggering beauty of the Universe and the appeal of scientific understand­ing. For youngsters in particular, that can prepare them for the jobs of the future, shaping a knowledge economy for a better world. And that is something all astronomer­s can be proud of.

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