Sunday, November 16, 2014

The spacecraft, the shirt, and the scandal

It was an exciting week in space exploration. Early on Thursday 13th November 2014, Australian time, the European Space Agency’s Philae lander touched down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a ten year chase.

There were several unexpected problems with the ultimately successful mission, including the failure of the stabilisation thruster and the harpoons, and the lack of sunlight to power the batteries in the final landing position. Perhaps the least expected problem, however, was the encounter between a space scientist, his lurid shirt and a global audience.

Rosetta mission scientist Dr Matt Taylor turned up to do a live-streamed interview wearing a Hawai'ian-style shirt featuring drawings of half-naked blonde women posed raunchily in corsets and leather/latex costumes, some of them delivering 'come hither' looks.  It appeared to be a sort of Goth-BDSM-Hawai'ian fusion aesthetic.

To say it hit the wrong note is an understatement.

Many people were appalled that after so much effort has been put into getting more women into STEM fields, this sent the message that we're not really part of the gang. There was a social media storm of the usual responses, including threats of violence against women who were critical, cries of "It's just a shirt!", and gnashing of teeth over the lengths to which stupid evil feminists will go to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Dr Taylor apologised. That's all good.

But even after so much has been written about it, I think there is a little more to say about the cultural meanings of the shirt and the performance of wearing the shirt in that particular context.

Subjects and objects

I'll start with an anecdote from long before internet times. Many years ago, perhaps in the 1980s, an Australian bank purchased a work of art for the foyer of its Sydney headquarters, in the way that wealthy institutions do. It was a large painting of a naked woman's legs spread apart, so that the viewer looked straight between them. Many people found this problematic. The bank's reaction was to label them prudes who supported censorship and denied the power and beauty of the female body. But they did eventually take the painting down.

So what was wrong with this "picture"?

For women, it was a stark reminder that you could be chopped up and reduced to a single characteristic. That you cannot control who looks at your body. That any man you met in the bank may not be talking to you as a person, but imagining you naked like the woman on the wall. That in the end, you're nothing more than a cunt interchangeable with any other. It was about remembering your place, and staying in it.

Here's something else to think about. Magazine covers generally feature a person, often a celebrity. But who are these people? Do you see men on the covers of women's magazines, and women on the covers of men's magazines? Or women on the covers of women's magazines, and men on the covers of men's magazines? Overwhelmingly, it is women who are featured on BOTH. It's so normalised that few people I've ever mentioned this to have noticed before.

This is the phenomenon of the male gaze, frequently invoked and even more frequently misunderstood. You don't see the person looking - the person behind the camera - you see what it is they look at and the cultural perspective that informs what they focus on. They themselves become invisible and unexamined, while the women are offered up as commodities to be viewed and consumed. The idea is that the gaze reproduces power relationships.

It is so pervasive in the contemporary world that even women are accustomed to adopting this perspective, looking at ourselves from behind the lens. We see it in film and television, on billboards and magazine covers, in literature, in bank foyers, and on shirts. Leading characters in films and books tend to be male (plenty of statistics about this if you're interested), and female consumers must perform an act of mental acrobatics to 'read' themselves into these characters and their perspectives - which we mostly do without even thinking about it, because there's a paucity of choice in this regard. (But imagine if you didn't have to do it). Men are much more rarely in the position where they have to think themselves into a female perspective.

This leads us into subjectivity and objectivity. The male gaze hides the male as the subject structuring the encounter and focuses attention on to the female body as object. This is the same thing that Jackson Katz talks about so cogently in his brilliant TEDx talk on how men get written out as actors in Violence Against Women, Domestic Violence, Intimate Partner Violence. See what I mean, even as I write those terms?

What this means is that men are whole subjects with a single position, while women are forced into becoming split subjects. They see themselves as objects through the male gaze and have to assert themselves as autonomous subjects against this. Their subjectivity is divided, and has to be negotiated on a personal and individual basis. This takes effort, and of course many go with the path of least resistance.

So let's get back to that shirt.

Messages about masculinity in science

The shirt is an illustration meant to be interpreted. It's one choice from a huge range of things that were NOT chosen. It's a cultural choice and a personal choice.

We have the male subject offering to the gaze of the audience an array of sexualised women, who look out from the shirt to meet the eyes of the observer. The women are offered as a way for other men to assess the wearer’s masculinity.

There's a bunch of messages that we could read from this.
  • I'm not a nerdy scientist. I'm a cool one with tattoos and an edgy shirt.
  • I'm not a basement-dwelling space dweeb, I'm a red-blooded male who likes women too, just like you!
  • Space science is sexy and attracts the chicks! (who are not space scientists themselves, unless corsets are standard lab wear).
  • I'm heterosexual.
  • I can totally score and indeed deserve a "10" woman - see them on my shirt.
  • We have mastered the comet just like we have mastered the women who pose for us (here on my shirt).
I'm sure you can think of other statements that the shirt translates into. These are just the ones that occur to me. Taylor’s intentions, insofar as he might be able to articulate them, are irrelevant here. It’s a production of cultural meanings which requires both the conscious act of wearing the shirt, and an audience to participate in reading the message.

But let's not quibble about this - the shirt was primarily meant to appeal to other men. The depictions of women were an exchange between the scientist and the assumed male audience, a confirmation and a performance of masculinity.

Dr Taylor's other faux pas was the statement that the Rosetta mission was “the sexiest mission there’s ever been. She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”

The scientist is male, and the spacecraft (like ships, continents, Mother Nature, and the sea) is female. Rosetta is sexy but 'she's' still a 'good girl', not a slutty spacecraft who puts her data out for anyone. Of course she responds to appropriate commands such as Dr Taylor provides — the theme of mastery again.

For women in science, these are all 'othering' devices that reposition us from the whole subject that we know ourselves to be, to the split subject, the object under scrutiny. We're a marked category. We're exchanged between male gazes, but we can't be active participants in the exchange. We pose prettily and passively on the shirt and sadly, in the minds of some, we're supposed to do that in the lab and in the field too.

The deep past of women and science

There's another important factor to add into the mix here. Science, especially 'hard' science, and even more especially mathematics and physics, is meant to be more difficult than the 'soft' humanities. We've seen a spate of opinions in recent times from people (who should know better), who argue that the low numbers of women in STEM fields reflects our natural capabilities. We're supposed to be more comfortable with soft and fuzzy things which involve people and animals, and it's genetic and evolutionary.  (Don’t get me started on that one – as an archaeologist I have strong opinions on how the evidence is used, but that’s for another post).

Ladies, we're just not brainy enough and there's nothing we can do about it.

The view that women aren’t naturally capable of logical or rational thought is far older than Aristotle, but it's worth revisiting the Aristotelian worldview because it basically dominated science, philosophy, theology and politics in Europe from the 4th century BCE to the Medieval period and far beyond. And I'm pretty sure than most of those who complain that women are not seen as inferior today and are just making it up, because feminists are whiny, haven't ever bothered to do any historical research.

Here's a few things Aristotle actually said about women, and he wasn't alone in holding these opinions. His works, however, were used as evidence to confirm this view by later thinkers.

Woman may be said to be an inferior man (Poetics).
The female is, as it were, a mutilated male (Generation of Animals).
Females are weaker and colder in nature, and we must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency (Generation of Animals).
The female is softer in disposition than the male, is more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young; the male, on the other hand, is more spirited than the female, more savage, more simple and less cunning. The traces of these differentiated characteristics are more or less visible everywhere, but they are especially visible where character is the more developed, and most of all in man (History of Animals).
Woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment (History of Animals).
I could find countless other examples of this sort of thing dating from the time of the earliest writing (see Gerda Lerner's work for an analysis), but Aristotle will do as a representative. This has been the prevailing view of women for the last few thousand years. It hasn't vanished since women got the vote, or since the 1960s when equality started to be legislated for in many nations. We know that both men and women still tend to construct women as inferior - this has been demonstrated by blind tests such as this one over and over. Put a woman's name on something and it will be judged as lesser than the identical thing with a man's name on it.
The corollary is that when women do things that are held to be the traditional territory of men, like the hard sciences, they compromise their femininity by becoming more masculine. (The reverse is also true). So let’s wear shirts which show the ladies where true femininity lies!
This is what we're up against in science. This is why we really don't need a stupid shirt to remind us that perceptions can affect our ability to act as thinking subjects in the world.

From little things, big things grow

To finish, I feel it's important to point out something that often seems to be missing in these debates: the link between the small things and the big things. Opponents of feminism often make statements like, for example, why are you worrying about a shirt when the real problem is why women don't stay in STEM? (The kind of contrast that Richard Dawkins is fond of making and indeed has already made in relation to the shirt). It makes me want to scream and tear my hair out. Can't they see that the two are connected, that the minor instance is an expression of the same ideology that leads to the big problem? The kinds of analogies that make this easy to understand tend to be unpopular, but it doesn't take much imagination to draw them, so I will leave that up to you.
The underlying view of the world doesn't change until individual people start to act based on a different view. The aggregation of a thousand personal everyday choices, like what shirt you wear on the television, add up to either support or subvert the status quo.
Make no mistake: for women to be treated as equals in STEM, the status quo needs to be subverted.
One shirt at a time, if needs be. MY shirt is going to feature Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether.

(Sleep well, little Philae)

Many thanks to @lynleywallis and @deborahbrian for their helpful comments.
Updated 19/11/2014 to correct minor formatting and style issues.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

Simone de Beauvoir in the Night Land

I've been reading a paper by Yi-Fu Tuan about "The significance of the artifact". He quotes the following from the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir:
 
The past is not a peaceful landscape lying there behind me, a country in which I can stroll wherever I please, and which will gradually show me all its secret hills and dales. As I was moving forward, so it was crumbling. Most of the wreckage that can still be seen is colourless, distorted, frozen: its meaning escapes me. Here and there, I see occasional pieces whose melancholy beauty enchants me. They do not suffice to populate this emptiness that Chateaubriand calls "the desert of the past".
 
This catches so much about the arrow of time, the past as a foreign country, and the ruins of memory.
 
The 'desert of the past' reminds me of the Night Land, William Hope Hodgson's haunting evocation of a dying Earth under the twilight of a dying Sun. The landscape of the Night Land is stripped back to a stark formless grey, empty of almost everything except cypherous entities which possess only one or two qualities, like the Watching Things and the Silent Ones.
 
The Nightland, image courtesy of http://www.thenightland.com/
 
De Beauvoir's landscape of the past is not haunted by the horrors of the Night Land, but it has its own perils. Do not look back with fond nostalgia expecting rolling green downs with hidden copses; you will find instead crumbling hills and dales in a silence near absolute zero. There is no solace here.
 
Forget Satre, Simone is where it's at.
 
References
de Beauvoir, Simone 1972 The Coming of Age. New York: C. P. Putnam's Sons, p. 365
 
Hodgson, William Hope 1912 The Night Land.
 
Tuan, Yi-Fu 1980 The significance of the artifact. Geographical Review 70(4):462-472


 
 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

How to avoid sexist language in space - Dr Space Junk wields the red pen.

Some people have been asking if there is a handy guide to avoiding sexist or gender exclusive language when describing space exploration, human spaceflight, and general space stuff, so I've decided to write one.

To begin, a very brief rationale for why this is important. When you're a bloke, terms such as "mankind" automatically include you. You don't have to think about it at all; you're already in there. Now we all know that these terms are supposed to also include women; but the reality is a bit different. Firstly, women have to "think themselves into" such expressions, even if it happens at a subconscious level. Secondly, there have been studies which show that men tend to assume such expressions to refer to them alone and do not automatically include women unless stated, again often at a subconscious level. And finally, there are plenty of examples of women attempting to exercise a right of "man", only to be told it does not apply to them.
 
This image is from John Sisson's fabulous blog Dreams of Space - Books and Ephemera. Non-fiction children's space flight stuff 1945-1975 http://dreamsofspace.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/2001-space-odyssey-howard-johnsons.html

So basically, the continued use of manned, mankind, etc, simply reinforces the impression that space is for men and not women. Remember the little girl who was bullied at school for having a Star Wars drink bottle until she asked for a pink one instead? And the numerous stories of little girls wishing they were born male so they could become astronauts? This is in the last couple of years too, not in the dim, dark past. This is the backdrop against which the many women working in space industry strive to succeed. And they are AWESOME.
 
The United Nations, in the Vienna Declaration, has made a commitment to increase marginalised groups' access to space - this includes "developing" nations and women. (And it goes without saying that there are all sorts of intersections with class, race, gender and geopolitics - for which I refer you to the inspiring work of Anne McClintock and Donna Haraway).

If, by changing a few words, you could contribute to creating a less "chilly climate" for women in space, why wouldn't you do it?

So here's my cheat sheet of common expressions in space and alternative ways to say them.
 
man: human, people, person
mankind: humanity, humankind
man-made: manufactured (this is derived from hands), artificial, human-made, human
manned: crewed, staffed, piloted, astronaut (adj)
manned mission: human spaceflight, astronaut mission
manned spaceflight: human spaceflight
spaceman: astronaut, cosmonaut, taikonaut
unmanned: robotic, automatic, autonomous

Because Dr Space Junk is always happy to help, here are a few examples that will get you started on the way to gender inclusiveness in no time!
 
1. "Gagarin's achievement launched a new era in the history of mankind".
Gagarin's achievement launched a new era in the history of humanity.
Easy-peasy, that one. The next one is slightly harder. Sadly, the "crewed" option doesn't work so well when spoken aloud.
 
2. "Further manned space flights occurred in quick succession"
Further crewed space flights occurred in quick succession.
Further astronaut missions occurred in quick succession.
Further human space flights occurred in quick succession.
 
3. "On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 spacecraft and became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space".
This one doesn't need the red pen. Hurrah!
 
4. "Following this success, President John F. Kennedy announced on May 25, 1961, the dramatic and ambitious goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
This is slightly more complex, because while the statement is not formatted as a quote, they are the actual words of JFK. What you can do here is add a [sic] after "man". If you're not familiar with the use of [sic], here's a brief explanation from Wikipedia:

The Latin adverb sic ("thus"; in full: sic erat scriptum, "thus was it written") inserted immediately after a quoted word or passage, indicates that the quoted matter has been transcribed exactly as found in the source text, complete with any erroneous or archaic spelling, surprising assertion, faulty reasoning, or other matter that might otherwise be taken as an error of transcription.
It indicates you're aware that you're reproducing an outdated or problematic idea, while retaining the usage of the time and the accuracy of the quote.

(On the other hand, though, at this time all astronauts were men; their ranks were drawn from test pilots, and women were barred from this profession. So JFK did literally mean "a man").

5. "Shortly afterwards on July 21, 1961, Gus Grissom piloted Liberty Bell 7 on the second American (suborbital) spaceflight. This was the second of seven manned flights in Project Mercury".
This was the second of seven astronaut missions in Project Mercury.
This was the second of seven human missions in Project Mercury.
This was the second of seven piloted missions in Project Mercury.
This was the second of seven human spaceflights in Project Mercury.

However, 'piloted' may not always be appropriate. Here is what Carl Sagan had to say on this point (plus some other thoughts too):

Image courtesy of Doris Koren @csareb

6. "Meanwhile the Soviet manned space programme continued"
Meanwhile the Soviet human spaceflight programme continued.
 
7. "While the study of space is carried out mainly by astronomers with telescopes, the physical exploration of space is conducted both by unmanned robotic probes and human spaceflight".
While the study of space is carried out mainly by astronomers with telescopes, the physical exploration of space is conducted both by robotic probes and human spaceflight.
Sometimes you just have to remove a word. "Unmanned" is redundant in that sentence.
 
8. "the launch of the first man-made object to orbit the Earth"
the launch of the first human object to orbit the Earth
the launch of the first artificial object to orbit the Earth
the launch of the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth
the launch of the first manufactured object to orbit the Earth
 
Quotes from 1 - 6 are taken from History of Manned Spaceflight - Part I: The Pioneers. Quotes 7 - 8 are from Space exploration.
 
 
In terms of using he or she, of course when you are specifically referring to a man or woman you use them, but you don't use he to refer to men AND women or people in general. There's a lot of debate about this, but personally I have no problems at all using "they/them/their", the plural third person, to apply to the singular.
 
You may have other examples, ideas for alternative phrasing, or writing problems that need solving. Let me know, and I'll add them here or try to assist as best I can.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to @Smiffy and @4DC5 for their suggestions, and @csareb for the Sagan image
Updated to add Sagan 13 October 2014

Monday, September 01, 2014

Dr Space Junk in da stratosphere: excavating my desktop


This is one of the results of me mucking around with graphics a few years ago. I found it while attempting to file all the stuff lying around on my computer desktop. At the time I made it, I was obsessed with vintage Russian space designs. (Well, still am, really).


Since I'm looking at random stuff, which I'm going to call an assemblage in fact, in Spit 1 of my computer, I might put a couple more artefacts up here. (Spits, for the non-archaeologists, are arbitrary excavation units. They might be 5 or 10 cm depending on the kind of deposit you're digging through. Typically Spit 1 is where all the grass roots, worms, sticks, and discarded rubbish is).

Here's a fabulous paper by Mark Edmonds about the archaeology and heritage of the Jodrell Bank telescope in the UK:





Full reference is
Edmonds, Mark 2010 When they come to model Heaven: big science and the monumental in post-war Britain. Antiquity 84:774-795\

This is a picture of a cloud chamber. Cloud chambers are very exciting places where you can see the traces of sub-atomic particles like electrons. I think I was vaguely thinking of an archaeology of cloud chambers with some Schrodinger's cats thrown in for good measure.


Here's the first few slides of a lecture on cultural landscapes I used to give to the ARCH2108 Cultural Heritage Management class at Flinders University. The lecture is joint effort between me and my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis. The beginning is about the origins of the cultural landscape approach in geography (although there is another strand deriving from landscape painting) - later on the lecture covers cultural landscapes in archaeology and heritage management, including space, of course.


The final artefact from my desktop is an aerial image of the sewage works at the abandoned Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station, from when we were doing a geophysical survey in 2010. Space sites can be more mundane than you might think. It was a rather peaceful place, slightly down slope and out of view from the main antenna and operations buildings. I thought that if anyone adaptively reused the site the tanks would make lovely water gardens.





Thursday, July 10, 2014

A magnificent obsession: cable ties in space


Yes, I know I am obsessed. But you'll all be convinced of the archaeological importance of cable ties once my first paper on this topic comes out. Ursula Frederick and Annie Clarke are editing a volume called 'That was then, this is now: contemporary archaeology in Australia' (published by Cambridge Scholars), based on a fabulous workshop held at the University of Sydney two years ago. I spoke about cable ties as the quintessential contemporary artefact, so ubiquitous in the modern world that no-one even notices them.

This paper is far more riveting than you may believe at this point, particularly the history of the invention of cable ties. I'll say no more here so as not to spoil the surprise.

In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of space-qualified cable ties. I was with a few people walking through the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre at Mt Stromlo last year, and of course could not fail to stop at this display. I think Roger Franzen thought I was slightly unhinged for wanting to photograph it.


Multilayer insulation blanket studs and cable ties (for attaching MLi blankets to spacecraft and minimizing the blanket-to-spacecraft conductance)

The blue colour is because the cable ties are manufactured from a radiation-resistant fluorine compound. More detailed descriptions of these materials will, of course, be in my forthcoming paper.

And the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre is being officially opened next week! Sadly, I can't go, as I'm giving a keynote address at the Victorian State Planning Conference. This is very exciting, as former Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser is also speaking, and I very much admire his opposition to our current government's loathsome policies on asylum seekers.

I haven't finished writing my talk yet (no surprises there), so I don't know if cable ties will get a look-in. You never know, though.




Sunday, July 06, 2014

Up, up and g'day: Superdoreen is Miss Galaxy 1982


I came across this fabulous artwork in some catalogue or other and immediately fell in love.


It's by Julia Church, a screen print on paper made in 1982, and it's in the National Gallery of Australia. There's so much going on it that I hardly know where to begin.

So we've got an Aussie chick superhero, flying through the air with her blue cape. Possibly she is also wearing red gumboots, and that may be a bathing cap on her head. So it's almost a little bit like swimming through space. She does have superpowers, after all, and swimming is the Australian sport par excellence.

Doreen is an old-fashioned name, redolent of the Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, but also a teensy bit bogan. Our heroine is a regular girl in the mold of the immortal Rak off Normie, like so:


She's a superhero, but she's also Miss Galaxy! Woo hoo! This of course makes me think of the Miss Universe competition of 1979, which was held in Perth around the time that Skylab made its dramatic re-entry. The fuel tank, which fell on Kalgoorlie, was exhibited on the stage of the pageant.  


One of my favourite quotes of all time is very pertinent here. Comedian and writer Kaz Cooke finds the very idea of Miss Universe intriguing, 'because, as its name suggests, people from other planets may enter'. 

For most women, this was as close as they ever got to space, being a bit decorative on the side. There were other space-related 'beauty' pageants: the Miss Guided Missile contest was popular both at the Woomera rocket launch site in South Australia and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.

But Superdoreen is having none of this. She is 'Up, up and gooday!' (if you can read the speech bubble). This is a pun on the sunshiney "For we can fly, up, up and away in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon", a 1967 hit pop song recorded by The Fifth Dimension. 

These pissweak balloons aren't for the likes of Superdoreen though, nor randy gents urging her to find love among the stars. She boldly goes where no Aussie has been before, with her Miss Galaxy title, her blue cape, and her red bathing cap.

My hero.





Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Preview: Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space

 
A new book on space archaeology is about to be released (August): Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space, edited by Beth Laura O'Leary and P.J. Capelotti. It's based around papers from a session at the Society for American Archaeology last year.
 
My offering is about the kinds of data we can access about orbital objects and their cultural meanings. A key part of my argument is based around a brilliant photograph taken by Dr Marco Langbroek, a Palaeolithic archaeologist and astrographer, of a section of geostationary orbit. I look at what the spatial relationship between the satellites says about geopolitics, the spectrum landscape between Earth and space, and even go a bit of Deleuze and Guattari (this surprised me as much as I expect it surprises you).
 
 
Here's a taster:
 
Spectrum is both a driver of satellite telecommunications technology and an invisible ‘soup’ in which the spacecraft swim.  This makes it very different from sensory landscapes of human interaction, composed of visible light wavelengths, sound, and the molecular interactions of smell and touch.  It is truly non-human and robotic; our interaction with it can only be mediated by antennas and signal processors.
 
And there's much more where that came from.
 
There are many other fascinating chapters, and we're very excited about the book, which captures the state of the discipline 11 years after the 5th World Archaeological Congress in 2003.