Author Archives: Lisa Messeri

The Second Project Project: The Security to Feel Insecure

Editor’s note: Platypus is launching a series called “The Second Project Project” that asks scholars to reflect on the process of developing new research projects at the intersection of anthropology, science, technology, and computing. Anthropologists, and most qualitative social scientists and humanities scholars, typically produce book-length research projects rather than series of articles, so the “second project” refers to the next major, book-length research project following the dissertation and  first book. During the week of March 21, I attended the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) international annual conference on developments in virtual reality. Though I had been reading up on virtual reality for the past few months, this was my first dip of the toe into an ethnographic field I hoped to explore in depth. I knew exactly zero people at this 500-person conference. The language on the conference posters in the hallway was mystifying. The thought of introducing myself to any of these strangers triggered butterflies in my stomach. I stood in fear of opening my mouth, thus betraying my outsider status. Right, I remembered, this is what the beginning of fieldwork feels like. It kind of sucks. This initial foray signifies a much delayed beginning of work on my “second project.” The question of my second project has been one I’ve artfully dodged since graduating in 2011 until just this past fall,  2015. The pressure of articulating a second project in my job applications—starting in my final year as a graduate student up until I secured my magical unicorn of a tenure-track position in 2014—led to a rather uncreative string of unstarted projects. These were often derivative of my first project, and ones that I felt comfortable approaching but neither inspired nor excited to work on. Only with the security of my current position did I feel I had the freedom and time to find a fieldsite that would, in fact, make me feel insecure (in both the best and worst ways). The predicament this raises is, with the realities of the current job market and ever growing expectations for what is accomplished before tenure, how do we find the time and space to develop this second project? (read more...)

Teaching the Anthropology of Outer Space

I think I’ve been most surprised by how effectively exploring anthropology in the context of [outer] space has educated me on anthropology in general. Having never taken a prior anthropology class, I think learning about it (and consequently, us) through a specific topic, such as space anthropology, has been a great way to learn. This is the kind of student endorsement that makes a professor’s heart sing. A few weeks ago, I asked students in my “Anthropology of Outer Space” class to provide me with some feedback on what “surprised” them most about this class. I did this to confirm a hunch that as much as the students were excited about outer space, they were becoming equally excited about anthropology. Sure enough, a third of the anthropology of outer space class said that what surprised them most was their interest in and the relevance of anthropology both for understanding human culture in general and science in specific. The class, I should note, is being taught at the University of Virginia, and cross-listed between the School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences. With two exceptions, the students are majoring in STEM fields. For many of the engineering students, this is their first humanities/social science class in college; for most every other student, their first anthropology class. (read more...)

Pluto: Unexplored, Exploring, Explored

“Yay! Pluto will always be part of our hearts,” a 17-year old exclaims to her companion. “Pluto just needs a good PR rep,” a dad jokes to his son after reading the formal definition of planet and figuring out why Pluto isn’t one. “Pluto’s a dog.” “I know it’s a dog. It’s also a dwarf planet,” two friends banter back and forth. These were a few quotes I overheard while eavesdropping at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum a few weeks ago. Pluto, though demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006 for failing to “clear the neighborhood of its orbit,” remains part of the “Exploring the Planets” exhibit. A scale model of New Horizons—the probe that made its closest approach to the icy underdog on July 14, 2015—hangs above a kiosk that in bright yellow letters reads “Exploring Pluto.” A screen shows the latest images and encourages users to visit the New Horizon’s website with even more information. One teenager passes by and explains to his mom, with confusion, that New Horizons has reached Pluto (though at the time it was still a few weeks away). The mom sighs, “poor Pluto.” Today, a week after New Horizon’s closest approach, can we say we have now explored Pluto? What does it mean to explore a body so distant, incomprehensibly beyond and incapable of human being? And, importantly, who’s the “we” lauding humanity’s new found Plutonian knowledge and what does that mean for politics of contemporary exploration? (read more...)

Diary of a Space Zucchini: Ventriloquizing the Future in Outer Space

This post is written by Debbora Battaglia, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke.  Currently, Dr. Battaglia is working on a book project to be titled Seriously at Home in ‘0-Gravity’. Not long ago, New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast Diary of a Space Zucchini – an adaptation of astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit’s blog from aboard the International Space Station, in 2012. The piece is a gem of expressive cross-species anthropomorphism. So tenderly did producer Sean Hurley enact the voice of the little aeroponic sprout that one listener was moved to “smiles and tears.” Indeed, the words of the self-conscious squash, floating above a sound mix of ethereal music, electronic beeps, humming computer atmospherics, and static-rich Ground Control “we have lift off” moments; the zucchininaut’s refined observations of living on orbit, in a baggie; its near-death experience and its sadness as fellow crew-member Sunflower browns and, after a struggle, returns to the Great Compost; its last philosophical reflections and anxieties as it describes how Gardener prepares to return to Earth, and turns out its light, can only be described as inspired public radio – courtesy of NASA’s “Word of Mouth” initiative. (read more...)

Cosmos: A Spacetime Conversation

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered on Fox on March 9, 2014 and will run until June 1, 2014. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, it is a ‘reboot’ of Carl Sagan’s series similarly titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Ann Druyan and Steven Soter serve as lead writers for both series (Sagan also co-wrote the original, though Tyson is not involved in the writing process for this series) and there are clear aesthetic connections between the two series.* Today’s Cosmos, though, is airing on Fox, not PBS, and American science in 2014 operates in a different landscape with a different set of concerns than Sagan’s series of 1980.** There has been an active social media engagement with Cosmos (#cosmos) and many historians of science, STS scholars, and journalists have been blogging and live tweeting their reactions to how the science is portrayed. I recently had a conversation with two historians of science who have been engaged with the Cosmos conversation, Ben Gross (@bhgross144, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Audra Wolfe (@ColdWarScience, an independent scholar), to discuss how Cosmos can offer insight into the current state of science and society. (read more...)

1977 Called. They Want Their Headline Back.

I have a fuzzy recollection of going to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum when I was a kid in the late 1980s. There was an exhibit about whether or not Mars hosted life.  On display was a clear plastic tube, filled halfway with dirt.  There was a shallow layer of water and the surface was bubbling. To my kid brain, this was dirt from Mars and the fact that the water was bubbling clearly indicated life – not some pump hidden behind the display. I wasn’t really into space or science fiction or aliens, but this stuck with me.  I was very willing to be deceived if it meant that life existed on Mars. As it turns out, I was in good company. The other day, the opening lines of a New York Times article titled “Life On Mars?  Maybe Not” caught my eye: In findings that are as scientifically significant as they (read more...)

Anthropology and Outer Space

This past summer had some pretty big headlines for the space science community. Venus passed between Earth and the Sun, not to do so again until 2117. Scientists announced that Pluto (the dwarf planet formerly known as planet) had a fifth moon, making it the envy of those of us with a single paltry satellite. Most celebrated, was the landing of a new Mars rover, Curiosity, on the red planet’s surface. Why should we (earthlings, anthropologists) care about Venus, Pluto, or Mars? My current project considers this question by focusing on the planetary science community, those who study planets both in our solar system and beyond. Specifically, I am interested in the role of “place” in the work of these scientists. I don’t mean just the places that these scientists inhabit, but if and how scientists transform planets from objects into places. Scientists understand other planets as places because it (read more...)