Distraction Free Reading

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 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.


  • I find this post absolutely fascinating. It brings up so many questions and offers a rich area for exploring human processing of space and place. Why do scientists need to think about place when studying remote objects, and perhaps even more interesting, why must the places seem similar to our own (such as grafting the notion of Springtime onto them)? It is said that humans are not coherent except in terms of how they exist in a place. Perhaps even the study of remote objects and scientists’ orientation to them are (only?) made possible by thinking of them as familiar places.

  • Lisa Messeri says:

    Those are exactly the questions I’ve been grappling with, Patricia. In one sense, the answer seems so obvious – of course we think in place because we live in place. Philosopher Edward Casey likes to describe humans not as “earthlings” but “placelings.” What place does, is it becomes a metaphor of what it means “to be.” The interesting question, is why this ontological question is so handily translated beyond our terrestrial sphere! What other metaphors, aside from place, might scientists use? Are they blind to those metaphors because place is somehow the first way of thinking about things and are they missing a heuristic that might be useful to their work? As you can tell from this comment, my brain spins in circles as i think through these very challenging questions.

  • I really like the way you articulated a key point here, which has to do with the metaphors chosen to explain or understand something. I see an analogy with Stefan Helmreich’s work in which atheist AI designers saw themselves as a “god” creating a world. But what was missed by using that kind of metaphor rather than others? They didn’t even believe in God! So why THAT metaphor of creation? What is gained and what is lost? Of course any metaphor will be limiting. What if future models somehow purposively rotated metaphors to keep pushing on the limits of what we know, or think we know. What if anthro of STS scholars came up with a kind of rotating metaphor model of research that used shifting analytical lenses in productive ways.

  • Also, which article of Casey’s mentions the “placelings” concept?

  • Lisa Messeri says:

    My student’s just read that piece by Helmreich. I’ll find out tomorrow how they wrapped their heads around it.

    The Casey reference is from his essay “How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time”. It is the introduction to Feld & Basso’s “Senses of Place”. He writes: “we are not only in places but of them. Human beings – along with other entities on earth – are ineluctably place-bound. More even than earthlings, we are placelings” (1996, 19).

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