An Anthropologist Looks at Us with Dr. Lisa Messeri

Quick—what’s the first image which comes to mind when you think about the field work of anthropologists?  I would guess you imagine a researcher living in a hut among some isolated tribe, carefully noting their society, their eating habits, their family structure and the like.  That’s certainly a common trope, albeit not without some measure of historical justification.

But what about studying the tribe to which we belong, i.e., astronomers?  To be more precise and at the risk of flattering ourselves at the idea that we are perhaps its distant cousins, the tribe of professional astronomers?  Well, Lisa Messeri, professor of anthropology at Yale University has chosen this tribe as the subject of her research.

On March 29, at Columbia University’s Pupin Hall, Dr. Messeri presented an anthropologist’s look at astronomers and their work habits and environment, and the underlying motivations behind the behavior of some of this tribe’s members. The full title of her talk was:  “An Anthropologist at the Observatory:  The Human Meaning of the Search for Another Earth,” and she presented a thoroughly fascinating examination of the results of her field work, which took place at observatories in Chile, the US and elsewhere.

No, she thankfully didn’t talk about table manners and marriage customs of astronomers, neither of which would frankly be worthy of discussion.  Rather, she focused on two aspects of astronomer behavior, namely:  1)  What does it mean to go to an observatory in the 21st century;  and 2)  Why do we care about finding an Earth-like exoplanet, given that no one alive on Earth today is going to go to one, or even see the results of any probe we might send to one in the future?

The first question Dr. Messeri asked was, “Why go to an observatory to do research in astronomy?”  It is far from a trivial question.  After all, we have today a host of orbiting telescopes, including Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Galex, Gaia, Tess, the soon(?)-to-be James Webb Space Telescope and many others, which benefit from not having to peer through the turbulent, selectively wavelength-opaque atmosphere which surrounds us.  Moreover, when you as a professional astronomer do go to an observatory today, you’re not looking through an eyepiece as in the famous picture of Edward Hubble.  You typically sit in the “Control Room” surrounded by computer screens and out of site of the telescope, which you do not even operate yourself—there are full-time employees who do that.  So in most cases, you really don’t need to be present at an observatory to use its telescope, and if you do go, you’ll just be looking at data on a computer screen while there.  So why do astronomers go?

An answer may be found in a quote she cited from Perceval Lowell in 1906:  “(The astronomer) must abandon cities and forego plains.  Only in places raised above and aloof from men can he profitably pursue his search, places where nature never meant him to dwell…withdrawn from contact with his kind, he is by that much raised above human prejudice and limitation.”  In other words, there is a nostalgia about the myth of the astronomer going to the mountaintop to seek knowledge and even today, we are still somewhat subject to its thrall.  As one current-day professional told her, “It’s much more satisfying to see it (at the observatory).  You’re like, ‘I hope it transits’, even though you know it is going to transit because you know what you’re looking for, but it’s still kind of fun.  Like, ‘oh my God, a transit!’”  This language reveals an emotional, human sentiment shared by astronomers about their observatory work.  Going to such a destination allows a researcher to feel  part of a long tradition of observational astronomers in the twentieth and earlier centuries.

Dr. Messeri focused considerably on this concept of nostalgia, which accounts not only for the above not-entirely-rational feelings and behavior of astronomers with respect to observatories, but also underlies much of the current enthusiasm among both the professionals and the public for exoplanet research.  Without taking anything away from the scientific value of such work, Dr. Messeri presented posters  which are part of a series of imagined Kepler exoplanet images entitled “Visions of the Future” designed by JPL/NASA artists, which openly rely on nostalgia in their design and marketing appeal.  As Messeri explained, the creative team for these posters intentionally imitated the style of early 20th century WPA posters for our national parks.  For example, a poster of Kepler-186f shows two humans in spacesuits standing on the green grass next to a white picket fence, looking at the (red) foliage beyond.  An even more telltale image in the series is a similar poster done for the Earth itself, where we see a couple, space helmets off, next to a river with butterflies, deer and birds, admiring the mountain scenery while embraced.  In both cases we see a clear nostalgia for a pristine and idealized world, simple and free, representing our human desire for perhaps the way we saw the world when we were children, or even an Eden.

Thanks to the discovery of exoplanets, we now see the Earth as just one of a great many worlds, and perhaps harbor the hope, consciously or not, that we may in this way one day find again the idealized Earth which we feel we have lost.

For those of you who wish to read more about Dr Messeri’s research, her recent book, Placing Outer Space:  An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds, is available at Amazon.