Tag: anthropology of space

Twin Astronauts: The Perfect Research Subjects

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, remained on planet Earth. This remarkable event—accompanied by a frenzy of media attention—created a degree of separation between twins that scientists could previously only imagine. For science journalists and their readers, the Kelly twin astronauts were like a dream come true, a perfect marriage between popular fascination with twins and Americans’ boundless enthusiasm for space travel. Attention-grabbing headlines like “Meet the twins unlocking the secrets of space”, “Nature vs. Nurture vs. NASA”, and “NASA twins to embark on year-long space experiment” began to appear in the news. Friends and colleagues were quick to forward these stories to me, knowing of my personal (I’m an identical twin) and professional (I’m an anthropologist who studies twin researchers) interest in twins. Scientific research on twins has a long history, so as I read about the plans for experimentation on the Kelly twins, there was much that was familiar to me. In a way, the twin-in-space and twin-on-earth scenario is a logical conclusion of long-standing scientific fantasies about twins and their power to reveal the hidden workings of nature and nurture. Interestingly, however, by the time it became possible to realize this older vision of twin research, the life sciences had entered the molecular era, with new methodologies and technologies threatening to replace the classical twin study. So, we might ask—how did we end up with this improbable study of twin astronauts? (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...)