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Looking up, by Prof Lucie Green

Lucy Stagg22 October 2020

For most people, looking up in the context of the research field I work in (space science) means turning our gaze towards the stars at night. We’ll often see advice that keeping an eye out for clear skies and finding somewhere with as little light pollution as possible will deepen the experience. Perhaps, use a deck chair and lie back as your eyes become dark adjusted, so that the Milky Way and a multitude of stars emerge before you. And this is good advice. But whatever environment you find yourself in, even in a city, there are things to see in the night sky and reasons to take some time out to look.

When I step outside my house I am surrounded by buildings, trees and a hill that means I actually only have a fairly small patch of the sky visible above, but I’ve found that this  is all I need. During the COVID-19 pandemic this view has provided solace. The early days were dominated by Venus shining brightly in the western sky after sunset. Each evening, from my hallway window, I would watch it track across the sky, seen in my binoculars against the background stars, before it moved too close to the Sun to safely view.

A new comet appeared – faint and wispy above the tree line. I felt triumphant each time I spotted it. A challenge amongst the street lights.

In such difficult times, looking up has provided escapism. A reason to engage with something bigger and out of my control. But in a good way.

Looking up leads to activism too. I spent several nights waiting for the SpaceX Starlink satellites to pass over overhead. They were very prominent at the start of the lockdown. These satellites aim to provide global internet access, a laudable aim that requires a network of 12,000 of them. Many, including myself, have looked at the satellites crossing the sky like a string of pearls and felt concerned about what this means for future generations of stargazers and the “photo-bombing” that will happen, ruining images taken at observatories around the world and in back gardens of enthusiasts. The action that followed by those with a passion for the night sky was swift and to SpaceX’s credit they have listened and responded with measures to reduce the brightness of the satellites. Now, they should be barely visible to the naked eye and the conversations between SpaceX and the astronomy community bode well. There is still more do, but things are looking up.

One important area that needs more activism is how we make looking up a truly inclusive activity. Recently I learned about the trailblazing work of people like Dr. Wanda Díaz-Merced, at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Dr. Nic Bonne at the University of Portsmouth. Both have developed novel ways of using sound and touch to open up the night sky to people who are visually impaired. Wanda played me the sounds of a gamma ray burst and a cataclysmic variable, and we discussed how everyone has the right to access the inspiration of the night sky and be part of the effort to gain new knowledge about it. I realised that looking up isn’t actually about the “looking” at all. It’s about community, equity, and a drive to feel the thrill of learning more about the fascinating Universe we live in.

lucie.green@ucl.ac.uk

‘Looking up, looking back, looking out, looking in’ by Osnat Katz

Lucy Stagg21 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.

osnat.katz.19@ucl.ac.uk

‘Looking Up’ by Paddy Edgley, COSS Assistant Director

Lucy Stagg19 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.

The Centre for Outer Space Studies (COSS)

Lucy Stagg14 September 2020

The Centre for Outer Space Studies was founded in 2019 to promote research and teaching related to the social study of space and our relationship to the cosmos and the planet. The Centre aims to act as a catalyst for serious debate, via talks, exhibitions, film screenings and other events that help us explore the wider socio-political impact of space science and the wider human relationship to outer space.

This blog will be used for our COSS CATALYST events; each month during the term we invite three guest contributors to present work on a theme related to outer space. Themes might include for example ‘the body’, ‘environment’, ‘future’, isolation, etc.  The guests range from scholars to professionals to enthusiasts. Each will be invited to contribute work that takes around 10 minutes to engage with. The work will be hosted here.

person in silhouette looking at night sky

The night sky, credit Greg Rakozy, Unsplash