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Centre for Outer Space Studies



‘Looking Up’ by Paddy Edgley, COSS Assistant Director

By Lucy Stagg, on 19 October 2020

In the discussion we had at the start of this month, which christened our centre, we heard from a group of artists, writers and scientists whose work involved thinking through the earth as a planet or a globe. More precisely, they discussed how we might attain new and different perspectives on our planetary home, which can help us to reconsider our relationship with it, and our taken-for-granted assumptions about our place in the cosmos. In everyday life our experience of our planet is as a vast, immovable ground on which we dwell, while the sun seems to move through our skies. The accounts these speakers offered to us of earth sought to reorient these views, and help us in “thinking humanness from elsewhere” (Valentine 2017: 185)

There is something deeply Copernican about this work. It helps us to come to terms with a universe which is, at times, radically at odds with the way in which we experience it. Our everyday experience is, in a sense, misleading, obscuring the true nature of our home. Our understanding, in this sense, needs reorienting. These perspectives on our world invite us to join Copernicus, as the “mover of the Earth and Stayer of the Sun and the Heavens” (Blumenberg 1987: 264).

This month, we return to earth and reconsider that perspective from the ground, and “looking up” at the sky. While the perspective from above Earth—first as atlas, then as world image—deepened our capacity to contextualize ourselves within the cosmos and render our place anew, our relationship with the universe at large begins with this tilting of our head and squinting of our eyes. Looking up, in one way or another, is how we know what we know about the cosmos.

My interest, and the focus of my doctoral research, is in cosmology. Specifically, I am interested in thinking about scientific cosmology anthropologically, understanding the cosmology of physics as an anthropologist. That is to say, rather than necessarily being interested in the matters of fact about the universe—its structures, processes, history, forces and substances—I am more interested in how people go about engaging with the universe, the conditions of that engagement, and its social and cultural implications. I am less interested in whether those engagements offer us the one, true, definitive image of the cosmos, and more in what people take and interpret those perspectives to be. The view of earth from above, and indeed the vistas we are presented with when we look up, are interesting to me precisely because they are taken to be just that: some people consider them to be ‘truer’ views of the universe for their capacity to challenge our quotidian experience of the world.

For this reason, my investigation is primarily into “looking up.” Particularly, I am interested in amateur astronomers, how stargazing affords them a particular perspective on the universe, and how that informs our understanding of ourselves. To a large degree, looking up can be said to elicit a similar effect to the view from above. Science communicators such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan, alongside informants, talk about the “cosmic perspective” it helps to attain, seeing the world not as a human, but, ostensibly, on its own terms.  In the second book of Douglas Adam’s classic Sci Fi comedy series The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, coming to terms with a universe that is so much bigger than ourselves is seen as not only impossible, but a form of mental torture (156). Such comprehension is, in this view, simply beyond humans.

Astronomers, however, describe this experience as therapeutic rather than torturous. There is a kind of sublime in the juxtaposition between these vastly different scales (Kessler 2012). In such a context we, or projects, and our anxieties, become trivial. As Carl Sagan famously noted while reflecting upon the Pale Blue Dot image of the earth, taken from 6 billion kilometers away, “it is said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

The Pale Blue Dot image, taken by the Voyager spacecraft on February 14th 1990 as a part of the family portrait. The Earth can be made out as a point of light in the leftmost chromatic aberration. Credit NASA

The Pale Blue Dot image, taken by the Voyager spacecraft on February 14th 1990 as a part of the family portrait. The Earth can be made out as a point of light in the leftmost chromatic aberration. Credit NASA

For me, thinking through our relationship with outer space in terms of “looking up” helps, ironically, to ground our discussions of cosmology. It reminds us of what is missed by these global and cosmic perspectives: that they are made and shared down here. Even if these images are not always rendered from a human perspective, they are always produced and interpreted by people. Thinking about stargazing doesn’t just mean engaging with space, but also being attentive to the conditions here on earth that make viewing possible, or difficult. These considerations tie our space-bound projects to traditions, practices, and ethical issues here on earth, and remind us that there are things that should not be trivialized or overlooked by the cosmic perspective. This raises the question of what other taken-for-granted assumptions linger beneath this wonder. The ways in which our would-be pristine space projects are dirtied by earthly and particularly colonial histories have already been discussed by thinkers like Peter Redfield (2002) and Alice Gorman (2005). By attending to the local and “provincial” aspects of stargazing, and the practice of “looking up,” we might ask what else we miss when we look at the world from a cosmic perspective.

Works Cited

Gorman, A. (2005). “The cultural landscape of interplanetary space.” Journal of Social Archaeology, 5(1), 85–107.

Redfield, P. (2002). “The Half-Life of Empire in Outer Space.” Social Studies of Science, 32(5), 791–825.

Valentine, D. (2017). “Gravity Fixes: Habituating to the human on Mars and Island Three.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 7(3), 185-209.

Blumenberg, H. (1987). “The Genesis of the Copernican World” MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Kessler, E. A. (2012) “Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime.” University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

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