Thursday, September 02, 2010

Astronomy and World Heritage

There is no question that astronomy, perhaps more than any other science, has spectacularly changed the way we look at ourselves as humans. It has inspired awe and it has also challenged many religious traditions unwilling to adapt to the new astronomy of the time. It has also been useful (and tricky) for calendars and in providing navigation help for early sailors. Plus astronomy played a major role during the scientific revolution of the 16th/17th centuries, from the debate over the geocentrism to the imperfections of the heavens as revealed by the new telescopes.

So it is no surprise that some of the sites of astronomical discoveries and of the gathering of astronomical knowledge are being considered for the World Heritage status (from Science):
The study, which has been officially endorsed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), highlights 44 sites and artifacts that mark humankind's millennia-long fascination with the heavens. Usually, it notes, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee focuses on what it calls "tangible, immovable heritage," such as buildings, parks, and railways. But when addressing astronomical heritage, it's the development of scientific knowledge that is important, not the bricks and mortar, says Thomas Hockey, an astronomer at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and a member of the International Astronomical Union's working group that helped produce the report.
For example, the twin monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in northeast England no longer houses the scientific writings of the medieval monk Saint Bede, but World Heritage status would recognize the "scholarly activity" that occurred there. Saint Bede's most influential work, On the Reckoning of Time, written at the monastery in about 725 C.E., "became the principal text for early medieval astronomical study," says the report, which is available online at
I think this is absolutely fascinating! But interestingly, one of the candidates is also the Mauna Kea Observatory. The fact that Mauna Kea is sacred for the native Hawaiians and the telescopes are often a flash-point for controversy (see earlier posts on this topic here, here, and a summary here), this sets up an interesting question about how we assign cultural values. Some of the astronomical contributions from observatories at Mauna Kea have been truly outstanding (extrasolar planets, some of the work around Dark Energy, confirmation of supermassive blackholes in galaxies, etc.). So is this a world heritage, even though some Hawaiians feel that these discoveries have come at the expense of their culture? These are some tough issues - and I will address this a bit more soon. The section on Mauna Kea (pdf) in the IAU study just devotes one sentence to the Native Hawaiian connection.

In the mean time, check out the Astronomy and World Heritage Report here. You will find some fascinating places in the report. By the way, the Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur, India has just been added to the World Heritage (other sites, such as the Stonehenge and the Greenwich Observatory are already on the UNESCO's World Heritage list).


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