Anthropology and Outer Space

December 4th, 2012, by § 6 Comments

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 allows them to become explorers. Curiosity is not a static machine, but a rover, a wanderer that must, by definition, go from place to place.  Like the rovers Spirit and Opportunity before it, Curiosity has a lively twitter account. On September 29th, Curiosity tweeted, “Ahh…Springtime begins today in the Southern Hemi of Mars.” This simple message bridges our two worlds; Curiosity is experiencing a familiar season, though likely in an unfamiliar way as it would be much colder than our Spring.

While it does not seem like much of a stretch to imagine the seasons of Mars, I often encounter astronomers who study planets in other solar systems (exoplanets) similarly speculating about weather. These planets are so distant and so faint that telescopes cannot take an image of them.  Scientists study data they collect about the host star in order to infer the properties of exoplanets. And yet, these invisible planets come to be quite complex worlds. They speak of these planets as having windy surfaces or temperamental seasons. An astronomer might ask, “What is January like on this planet?” This language makes the strange familiar and does the important work of conjuring an imagination of the kind of place this planet is. These planets begin to seem like places because the astronomers establish linguistic bridges between what it is to be on an exoplanet and our experience of being on Earth.

Conceptualizing astronomers (and other scientists) as place-makers allows us to witness how spaces become social even though humans will never visit such planetary places. The latest planetary headlines were over an NPR story that misunderstood a quote from a rover scientist and erroneously reported that there was game-changing news from the Red Planet in the offing. In the days before this rumor was debunked, the news media and excited tweeters imagined how the new finding might make Mars seem even more like a place: more inhabitable by us in the future or other entities of the past.

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