‘Looking up, looking back, looking out, looking in’ by Osnat Katz
By Lucy Stagg, on 21 October 2020
We often associate looking at space with the act of looking up – going outside on a cold night and searching for stars, planets and galaxies. We’ve been finding meaning in the sky around us for thousands of years, with cultures around the world telling stories about the skies above us. We still try to find meaning today; modern astronomy developed out of astrological attempts to understand how reading the stars could help us here on earth, and early space scientists around the US, Europe and Russia were influenced by the writings of Russian philosophers.
For my PhD research, I study the history of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory – the UK’s oldest space science research lab. From a stately home deep in the Surrey countryside, about 200 people build instruments that will one day launch on spacecraft. They monitor those instruments out in space, and their flight spare twins here on Earth, for decades at a time. They also comb through the data produced out in space to learn more about our Solar System and our Universe. They, too, are making meaning out of looking up – but in a different way. Seeing with the naked eye, or with telescopes or binoculars, is something far removed from monitoring the data transmitted by an instrument in space.
I write what’s called social and cultural history – instead of trying to understand the Mullard Space Science Laboratory through looking solely at scientific papers, I look at what people think, feel and believe about MSSL, and I do that through sitting them down and interviewing them. As part of my work, I wanted to investigate how people felt about the science and engineering they did at MSSL, but also how they felt about the social side of their lives.
What I found is that even when people wanted to separate their work from the culture of MSSL, many of them couldn’t – to them, space science and life at MSSL are so closely bound up that discussion of one inevitably led into the other. An anecdote about working on an instrument would involve the people working on it; a story about the people working at MSSL would slowly lead into a story about what they worked on. As we built up trust through sitting and talking, people would tell me about other memories – ones that were more difficult to put into words or turn into easily intelligible stories. These were almost inextricably linked to certain instruments, usually ones that they’d worked on.
At MSSL, people’s understandings of “looking up” become intensely physical. From the academics’ offices to the great mechanical drawing office, and from the cramped electronics workshops to the long mechanical workshops where the instruments are put together, the people who work at MSSL are surrounded by the things they’ve made and are making. They’re also surrounded by the products of the things they’ve made and are making: the data sent back by space instruments and the flight spares kept in MSSL’s clean rooms. To look up at the sky, they have to look inwards within the lab – and even inwards within the instruments, as certain parts of the instruments are still handmade.
By now, we are used to images from space telescopes such as Hubble, and we’re quietly waiting for the James Webb Space Telescope to launch. Many of the instruments built by MSSL aren’t true imaging instruments, but detectors for electrons, ions, plasmas and photons. They don’t produce data that’s particularly easy to understand for non-specialists – something that came up more than a few times in interviews when I asked about describing findings and results. Although they took pains to stress that their results didn’t look like Hubble images, and often found themselves explaining that they were working in a completely different environment or at a completely different time – one where they may have lacked very basic knowledge of astrophysical processes – the people who worked on those instruments could “see” the data in a way that I could not. They would proudly tell me about the achievements that they made and the things that they saw – X-ray images of the Cygnus Loop, Cassini’s discovery of negative ions around Saturn’s moons, heavy ions around the Sun. They looked up at the Sun, stars and planets through instruments they had looked in on, and they looked back on their memories as I witnessed.
At MSSL, looking up at the sky is a multifaceted endeavour, one involving deep and frequently intense connections both with instruments and with other people. In looking up, people at MSSL look inwards towards the fine details of the instruments and outwards towards the people around them.