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Can Society Share the Basic Sciences?
In View of Findings in Astronomy

Osamu Nakamura
Assistant Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

An earth-like planet found

On the morning of October 1, 2010, exciting news appeared in some of the newspapers-a planet which resembles the earth to an unprecedented degree was discovered orbiting the star called Gliese 581, one of the stars that emit light from themselves as the sun does. The distance from the earth to this star is 20 light-years, which means it is a neighbor of ours. Actually, this is not the first planet ever to be found near a star other than the sun. In fact, even though the first one was found only about 15 years ago, more than 400 extra-solar planets have already been spotted. Because a technique for detecting planets outside the solar system has been established recently, many earth- or Jupiter-like planets have been discovered rapidly, one after another, orbiting our neighboring stars shining in the night sky. So, is there life on some of these planets, as there is on earth? This newly discovered planet is the most likely candidate. In this way, arguments about life in the universe outside of the earth are gradually shifting from the realm of groundless imagination into the territory of empirical science.

How did the world view of humans change?

Astronomy has produced countless achievements, such as the re-categorization of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006. The public pessimistically regarded it as a demotion, but that is a fragmented view of the bigger picture. At that time, more than 1,000 new celestial bodies had been discovered near Pluto in just 15 years, and Pluto is one instantiation of these bodies. This finding triggered the re-categorization of Pluto. The media mentioned little about this fact, but the Pluto event meant that humans successfully broke the outer border of the solar system to enter a new era. In 2003, the spacecraft called WMAP measured radiation coming from the outer limit precisely and revealed that the universe is about 13.5 to 13.9 billion years old. WMAP also found sound evidence that the universe is filled with dark energy, which accelerates the expansion of the universe.

Our awareness of the world has been updated rapidly following such achievements reported one after another. After all, it was within just the last 100 years that Pluto was discovered and the universe was found to apparently be expanding. During this period, humans discovered that our Milky Way Galaxy is spreading out, that similar galaxies are scattered outside it, and that the universe is certainly expanding. Humans launched rockets and observed the earth from space, learned that the other side of the moon looks different from pictures taken by allegedly supernatural psychic photography, and found that Mars has no canals. As a result, we humans acquired a dramatic world view that would be impossible to imagine a century ago. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? These are the questions Gauguin posed in his painting at the end of the 19th century. Modern astronomy is attempting to answer these philosophical questions from an empirical-scientific point of view. These are among the broad objectives comprised by the basic sciences.

Who do the basic sciences serve?

We astronomers think that we have actively released these achievements to the public. The interaction with society, nevertheless, seems to have been inadequate. Astronomers and many other scientists have built systems for sharing knowledge they produced only among themselves. They have studied only what they are interested in. Today's scientific community came to understand that in the end, such attitudes isolated scientists from society. In 1999, UNESCO and the International Council for Science jointly held a meeting in Budapest to discuss science for the 21st century. In this meeting, they declared the commitments of Science for Peace; Science for Development; and Science in Society, Science for Society, in addition to the existing Science for Knowledge. With this declaration-which is a matter of course in a sense-scientists are more and more strongly aware of society, though somewhat bewildered. Interaction between science and society to encourage change in each other is called science communication. How to advance science communication is now a significant issue for the future science community. Even basic sciences such as astronomy are no exception.

One key would be the establishment of mechanisms for scientists to respond to requests from society. As mentioned above, astronomy has contributed to significantly changing the world view of humans. Astronomers have also been enthusiastic about the publication of their research since the early stage. These activities, however, center on an approach from astronomers to society. In science communication, the opposite viewpoint-what it is that society wants from astronomers-is also important. Even the basic sciences cannot ignore this point. Indications of this include the media treating the Pluto event as a demotion, budget screening plans for scientific activities, and core researchers asking for public comments. Scientists have not had many mechanisms for responding to such requests from society. Future scientists should, therefore, establish processes for communication with society, as well as conduct research. It is difficult to embed something not directly useful to the economy-including the basic sciences-into society. It is, nevertheless, also now obvious that the basic sciences are no longer solely the province of scientists, and scientists must determine how to share the basic sciences with society, even if they are currently wondering which approach to take.

Osamu Nakamura
Assistant Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Professor Nakamura was born in 1970. He graduated from the Faculty of Science at Kyoto University in 1993 and the doctoral course of astronomy in the Graduate School of Science at The University of Tokyo in 2001. He received a doctoral degree in science. He has been a Center of Excellence (CoE) research fellow for the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research at The University of Tokyo in 2001; a research fellow for The University of Nottingham in 2003; a full-time visiting research assistant for the Science and Technology Journalist Development Program at the Graduate School of Journalism in Waseda University in 2005; and a full-time visiting lecturer for the same institution in 2007 before assuming his current position in 2010. Professor Nakamura specializes in astronomy and science communication.

Primary works
Horizons: Exploring the Universe [Saishin Tenmon Hyakka: Uchuu, Wakusei, Seimei wo Tsunagu Saiensu] (co-translated, Maruzen, 2010); "Analysis of Science and Technology Communicator Development Curriculums at Universities in the United States [Amerika no Daigaku ni okeru Kagaku Gijutsu Komyunike-ta- Yosei Karikyuramu no Bunseki]" (solely authored, Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of Japan Society for Science Education [Nihon Kagaku Kyoiku Gakkai Dai 33 Kai Nenkai Ronbun Shuu], p.317, 2009); and "The Tully-Fisher relation of intermediate redshift field and cluster galaxies from Subaru spectroscopy" (co-authored, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 366 p. 144, 2006)