Red Lights, Dark Nights, and Heavenly Bodies – Field Notes from a Star Party

July 29th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

For a fleeting moment, I am blind. Standing frozen in the dark, I am afraid to take even a single step while waiting for my pupillary light reflex to kick in. Happy voices murmur in the deep darkness that envelops me. As I begin to dimly make out my surroundings, I look up to a black sky with a billion celestial objects bisected by the Milky Way and circumscribed by the mountain peaks that surround me. Another moonless, mid-summer night and I’ve returned to the field to continue a multi-year ethnographic study of North American avocational astronomers at their annual “star party.”

For those unfamiliar, star parties are ritualized stargazing events sponsored and hosted by recreational astronomy clubs that bring participants together in remote locations to observe the night sky. Part science, part party, star parties serve as a way of connecting with others around a telescope. Beyond simply forms of serious leisure, star parties also serve as venues for informal learning and opportunities for community-building.

M33 Hubble 2003

M33, the Triangulum galaxy. The view from terrestrial telescopes are far less impressive than this Hubble image, yet the thrill of seeing it at a star party is rather inexplicable. (Photo courtesy NASA)


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Governing with Big Data: The Indian Unique Identification Project and Information Determinism

July 15th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The relationship between surveillance, big data and state power has been vociferously debated in both academic and popular press over the past several months (Boellerstoff 2013 and Crawford et al. 2014 among others). But what of instances where states leverage big data without an explicit surveillance focus? What kinds of questions should we be asking when big data appears in a project that doesn’t focus on, say, “security” (which we associate directly with surveillance) but on “welfare” or “development”? In this post, I explore this theme in the context of the ongoing Indian Unique Identification (UID) project (also known as “Aadhaar” or Foundation). The state-backed UID project wants to issue biometric-based identity numbers to all Indian residents, arguing that an ability to uniquely identity individuals is critical to the efficient administration of public welfare schemes. The biometric dataset that the UID is putting together towards its goal is already the largest of its kind in the world.

Speaking of Big Data

EnrolmentAgent

Enrollment agent at an enrollment center in a central Indian state
(Photo credit: Aditya Johri)

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

July 7th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

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’.

Space Zucchini Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

Space Zucchini
Photo Credit: Don Pettit/NASA


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 the rest of this entry »

Life in the Laboratories of Breaking Bad

June 30th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

A Chemical Drama
I freely admit to an obsession with Breaking Bad that hasn’t quite come to an end, despite nearly a year having passed since the final episode aired. I am not the only one, apparently, as a new book written from a media studies perspective, Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series has just come out. While this is no doubt a productive frame to examine Breaking Bad, I am going to argue that Breaking Bad also illustrates key problematics in laboratory studies. If The Wire can become a staple within urban studies, why not Breaking Bad within STS? In what follows, I will sketch a few possible directions, which assume at least a passing familiarity with the plot and characters. WARNING: spoilers ahead! « Read the rest of this entry »

On the Porous Boundaries of Computer Science

June 18th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The term “big data” [1] brings up the specter of a new positivism,  as another one in the series of many ideological tropes that have sought to supplant the qualitative and descriptive sciences with numbers and statistics.[2]

But what do scientists think of big data? Last year, in a widely circulated blog post titled “The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble,” physicist Jake VanderPlas made the argument that the real reason big data is dangerous is because it moves scientists from the academy to corporations. « Read the rest of this entry »

Waiting for the Rain: Techno-Scientific Landslide Mitigation in Teziutlán, Puebla, Mexico (Part II)

June 12th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the relationships between people, policy, and materiality that make catastrophic landslides possible in Teziutlán, Mexico. In this second entry, I want to explore how the development of a landslide early warning system by National Autonomous University of Mexico researchers and National Center for Disaster Prevention engineers becomes a site where humans and non-humans become increasingly interconnected in the making of disaster mitigation techno-science. While doing this, I want to pay particular attention to those arrangements among people and between people that materiality engineers and researchers envision as optimal and those that are feasible in the context of contemporary Mexico.

My friend and colleague, Felipe Juarez, at the foot of the Aurora landslide in February 2014. The CENAPRED monitoring station is located in the house behind (photograph by Roberto Barrios)

My friend and colleague, Felipe Juarez, at the foot of the Aurora landslide in February 2014. The CENAPRED monitoring station is located in the house behind (photograph by Roberto Barrios)

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Waiting for the Rain: Techno-Scientific Landslide Mitigation in Teziutlán, Puebla, Mexico (Part I)

June 9th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The sun comes up over Teziutlån, Puebla, Mexico (photograph by Roberto E. Barrios).

The sun comes up over Teziutlån, Puebla, Mexico (photograph by Roberto Barrios)

On the first days of October 1999, the city of Teziutlán, Puebla, Mexico, experienced levels of precipitation that tripled its annual rainfall. Throughout the city, a number of hillsides occupied by working class family homes reached a critical point at which upper layers of soil and environmentally degraded rock began to give way under the weight of accumulated rainwater and settlements, creating major landslides. The most dramatic of these landslides occurred in the neighborhood of La Aurora, where settlement and land use practices came together with geological history and environmental factors to create a massive movement of soil, trees, rocks, and houses that killed 109 of the 200 people who died in similar events throughout municipality that week. The catastrophe was deeply traumatic at the local level, leading to a period of mourning that overtook the city, and it also gained national attention, resulting in a visit of the devastation by then president Ernesto Zedillo.
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What Educates in DIYbio?

May 27th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

The Pedagogical Paradox

Two human inventions can be regarded as the most difficult, — namely, the art of government and that of education; and yet we are still contending among ourselves as to their fundamental nature.

- Immanuel Kant

Kant here is referring to the pedagogical paradox presented by education. This paradox of moral authority most often occurs in the context of schooling: How does education, in the sense of external regulation), lead to the internally regulated autonomy of thought and action? Stated more generally, the pedagogical paradox is assuming the existence of something for which education is the precondition. For example, can someone declare oneself to be a biologist and launch an independent course of inquiry without recognized credentials? The pedagogical paradox is also a question of legitimate knowledge; in this case, who may speak the truth of biology? « Read the rest of this entry »

Translating South Asian Classical Medicine for Global Markets

May 20th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Science, patent law, and language

Many traditional forms of knowledge, such as South Asian classical systems of medicine like Ayurveda, are increasingly targeted as prime sources of market value that can be effectively captured and managed through the assertion of intellectual property (IP) rights. This expanding reach of IP has sparked heated debates marked by a deep concern that the very foundations of creativity, culture, and even humanity are increasingly subject to privatization. The case of turmeric, a plant-based powder commonly used throughout South Asia both as a spice in everyday cooking and in Ayurvedic remedies, provides a key illustration of the transformative forces at work when intangible cultural heritage enters into and circulates through the global marketplace for complementary medicine (expected to reach $115 billion per year by 2015). Legal challenges to patenting turmeric’s healing properties elucidate processes of privatization at the intersection of IP rights, medicine, and intercultural knowledge production. « Read the rest of this entry »

“But Where are the People?”: Field Notes from an Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Team

May 13th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Elephants

Elephants in the room? Sculptures on Galleta Meadows Estate, in Borrego Springs. Photo taken by the author.

Almost one year ago, I found myself deposited in the middle of one small battleground in the desert Southwest’s increasingly technical (and increasingly ominous) water wars: the small town of Borrego Springs, California. The problem here is deceptively simple. Borrego suffers from an impending water crisis, with some studies suggesting that the town will run out of viable groundwater within a generation. Despite spending 30 years and over $5 million on scientific and policy solutions, Borrego residents continue to face rapidly increasing water use, escalating environmental effects, and continued controversy over how to understand and respond to the disaster as it unfolds. As one community member explains, “The problem isn’t that someday we’ll turn on the tap, and the water won’t work. The problem is that, long before that, our town will cease to exist. Our way of life will be gone.”

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