Wednesday, August 26, 2015

'The sweet poison of the false infinite': C.S. Lewis on the ethics of colonising outer space

In 1944, Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis published the second book of a trilogy about space. Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) is a lyrical evocation of the planet Venus, before the Mariner fly-by of 1962 revealed it to be a lifeless world. It's also a moral tale of the battle between dark and light, infused with Lewis' Christian theology. Through Professor Weston (dark) and Ransom (light), Lewis presents two different experiences and ideologies about humanity's place in space.

I find myself returning again and again to the first two novels in this trilogy. Informed by his deep knowledge of Medieval worldviews, Lewis' vision of space is profound and poetic. I've quoted him more than once in academic papers (here for example), and frequently discover new insights in sentences read a thousand times before, depending on where my own thoughts are tending at the time.

Source: Twisty Turny Lanes

In the passage below, Lewis' distaste for the nascent genre of science fiction, and for the amateur societies who were the vanguards of space before the end of the war brought the potential of the V2 rocket to the world's attention, is very evident. (Never mind that he was now writing science fiction himself). However, the way he captures the tension between what we might now call an ecological position, and an colonialist one, prefigures very contemporary debates. You are left in no doubt which side he supports.

Professor Weston....was a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of 'scientifiction', in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs strive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God's quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome. This for a start. But beyond this planet lies the sweet poison of the false infinite - the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and for ever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our own species - a dream begotten by the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality, fondled in secret by thousands of ignorant men and hundreds who are not ignorant. The destruction or enslavement of other species in the universe, if such there are, is to these minds a welcome corollary.

Even in the last few weeks, I've come across debates about humanity's right to propagate indefinitely, in whatever form that might be. Space narratives still cleave to a naive colonialism abandoned (mostly) everywhere else in the modern world. 

But for Lewis, we are seduced by the 'sweet poison of the false infinite'. Infinity, he implies, is deceptive. The concept of a virtually endless universe is not an invitation to expand, in our own messy organic big bang, to fill all available niches; not is it a palliative for the fear of death. 

Perhaps that is the crux of it. We must solve infinity within ourselves before we can drink the 'sweet poison' and survive.

Lewis, C.S. 1944 [1975] Perelandra. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, p 81

Friday, August 21, 2015

Cold War material culture: the script of Ice Station Zebra

A random thought today sent me in search of the screenplay of the 1968 classic film Ice Station Zebra. Years ago it did not exist on the internet, and I couldn't find it now either, not even on the American Film Scripts Online database - but I did come across this image of the actual script on a bookseller's website.

Image courtesy of Royal Books

The script is described thus:

Revised draft script for the 1968 film. Copy belonging to an uncredited crew member, with notations in holograph pencil on the versos of pages throughout, mostly numeric notations, with a few pages noting on-the-set supplies, and some personal notations. 
Goldenrod studio wrappers, rubber-stamped copy No. 170, dated June 14, 1967, with credits for director Sturges, producer Martin Ransohoff, and writer Douglas Heyes. 189 leaves, with last leaf of text numbered 203. Mimeograph, dated variously between 4/28//67 and 6/30/67, with blue and gray revision pages throughout, dated variously between 6/27/67 and 7/3/67. Pages Very Good plus, wrapper Near Fine, bound with two gold brads.

Just incidentally, the script will set you back $1750.00 USD.  I was momentarily tempted, I have to confess.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

'Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap': Apollo 11 and the poetry of longing and loss

As you know I love a bit of space poetry, and if it happens to be Australian, well, all the better. This wonderful poem, full of gentle rhyme and wistful metaphor, really resonates with me because it describes so well my own experience of the Apollo moon landing in 1965, where I similarly huddled, with an entire rural primary school of students, into the teacher's residence to watch the first steps on a black and white television.

It's really a poem, though, of love and loss. I could go on with my amateur analysis, but I won't: please read it for yourself and enjoy the subtle twists of the poet's art. This is by Stephen Edgar, and it won the 2005 Peter Porter Poetry Prize.

(Note on attribution: I was alerted to this poem by the Australian Book Review newsletter. Here it is on the original website).

Photograph by Victor Rogus

Man on the moon
Hardly a feature in the evening sky
As yet  near the horizon the cold glow
Of rose and mauve which, as you look on high,
Deepens to Giotto’s dream of indigo.
Hardly a star as yet. And then that frail
Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap
Gouged by a nail, or the paring of a nail:
Slender enough repository of hope.
There was no lack of hope when thirty-five
Full years ago they sent up the Apollo 
Two thirds of all the years I’ve been alive.
They let us out of school, so we could follow
The broadcast of that memorable scene,
Crouching in Mr Langshaw’s tiny flat,
The whole class huddled round the TV screen.
There’s not much chance, then, of forgetting that.
And for the first time ever I think now,
As though it were a memory, that you
Were in the world then and alive, and how
Down time’s long labyrinthine avenue
Eventually you’d bring yourself to me,
With no excessive haste and none to soon 
As memorable in my history
As that small step for man onto the moon.
How pitiful and inveterate the way
We view the paths by which our lives descended
From the far past down to the present day
And fancy those contingencies intended,
A secret destiny planned in advance
Where what is done is as it must be done
For us alone. When really it’s all chance
And the special one might have been anyone.
The paths that I imagined to have come
Together and for good have simply crossed
And carried on. And the delirium
We found is cold and sober now and lost.
The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back,
A radiotelescope propped to receive
The signals of the circling zodiac.
I send my thoughts up, wishing to believe
That they might strike the moon and be transferred
To where you are and find or join your own.
Don’t smile. I know the notion is absurd,
And everything I think, I think alone.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

How would lunar mining affect the cultural significance of the Moon?

This is an excerpt from my (pre-revision) forthcoming publication Managing cultural heritage values in lunar mining? What are the issues?
Consultation with stakeholders is part of both assessing the social significance of cultural heritage and obtaining a Social Licence to Operate (SLO). Despite the best intentions, however, gaining free, prior and informed consent is frequently overlooked (Bice 2014). How could this be achieved for an entire celestial body, and with meaningful consultation with the ‘local’ community of Earth’s seven billion people? While the UN offers obvious mechanisms through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS), UNESCO and the  advisory organisation the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), private commercial interests may prefer to undertake their own community engagement.
Lunar surface mining. Image courtesy of NASA
How will people feel if they look at the Moon in the night sky, and know that is being mined underneath their eyes? While diverse publics have been tolerant of scientific missions, commercial ventures may be received very differently. Mining and exploration will have impacts on the lunar environment much greater than the low level created by robotic and scientific missions to date.
While it is probably broadly true to say “humanity as a whole has embraced the historic events and objects associated with space research as part of our jointly held heritage” (Walsh 2012:234), this obscures deeply entrenched divisions between colonial/spacefaring nations and colonised/'developing' nations (Gorman 2005a, Gorman 2009b, Redfield 2005). These divisions have been very evident in the politics around the formation of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the Moon Agreement even more so, and contribute to the impasse that resource utilisation on the Moon is currently facing (Hoffstadt 1994).
The reaction of, say, an Australian to a US-based profit-making mine in which they have no say or share could easily be negative. A First Nations Australian may have another layer of reaction, based on their experience of alienation from country and destruction of cultural heritage arising from terrestrial resource exploitation. Moreover, an assault on the integrity of a celestial body which belongs to what is commonly called the ‘Dreaming’ – a suite of cultural knowledge in which the past is simultaneously entwined with the creation of law, identity and land in the present – may be a matter of some concern. Aboriginal people are by no means the only First Nation to have such a relationship with the Moon.
Moon Dreaming, by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, 2007
Ronnie Tjampitjinapa is a Pintupi man from the Western Desert  He was a founding member of the Papunya Tula Artists group. .
Image courtesy of Aboriginal Art Directory
What is considered to be for ‘the benefit and in the interests of all countries’ (OST Article 1, see also Moon Agreement Article 4) depends very much on how regulation unfolds in this next critical period. Again a parallel with terrestrial mining industry may be instructive. Management strategies in SLO frameworks include the concept of ‘offsets’: compensating for impacts at one location through activities at another, either directly or indirectly. A direct offset might be setting aside a protected area of land to compensate for the loss of that impacted by mining. Increasing the value of a heritage place could be considered a direct offset – for example, committing resources to conserving Tranquility Base to compensate for ‘sacrificing’ a Lunar Orbiter impact site. Indirect offsets may include funding research or education around the environmental/heritage resource that will lead to benefits for it. Note though, that offsets are determined during the planning phase, not in retrospect ie they do not compensate for damage already caused.
Lunar mining will take place in an environment where social media are a major part of public engagement with space. Space agencies, private companies, astronauts, missions, and rovers have their own Twitter accounts and there is an expectation of public involvement. Crowd-funded space missions such as Lunar Mission One, a probe designed to drill a deep core in polar regions, is possibly the vanguard of more such projects. The investors in off-world mining companies are likely to be the same people who buy shares in terrestrial mining. The moon’s seeming remoteness will not protect industrial operations from the scrutiny of the public.
Bice, Sarah 2014 What Gives You a Social Licence? An Exploration of the Social Licence to Operate in the Australian Mining Industry. Resources 3:62-80
Gorman, A.C. 2009b Beyond the Space Race: the significance of space sites in a new global context. In Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holtorf (eds) Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now, pp 161-180 Bern: Peter Lang
Gorman, A.C. 2005a The cultural landscape of interplanetary space. Journal of Social Archaeology 5(1):85-10
Hoffstadt, Brian 1994 Moving the heavens: lunar mining and the ‘common heritage of mankind’ in the Moon Treaty. UCLA Law Review 42:575-621
Redfield, P. 2005. Space in the Tropics. From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Walsh, Justin 2012 Protection of humanitys cultural and historic heritage in space. Space Policy 28:234-243

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The day Pluto came to breakfast: Venetia Burney and a life in mathematics

The girl who named Pluto became a mathematician.

Pluto comes to breakfast

Report from the Springfield Union, USA, March 14, 1930.
Image courtesy of Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers

One morning, when Venetia Burney was 11 years old, the news that a ninth planet had been discovered was reported in the Times. In her own words:

I think it was on March the 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I, after a short pause, said, "Why not call it Pluto?" I did know, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children's books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn't been used.
This was no ordinary grandfather. Falconer Madan was the retired head librarian of the Bodleian in Oxford, and his brother Henry had named the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. The planets were part of Venetia's early life on Earth. 

The planetary walk

At her primary school, Venetia recalled in 2006,
we used to play games in the university park, putting - I think they were lumps of clay - at the right distance from each other to represent the distances of the planets from the Sun.
The 'games' were in fact a teaching exercise devised by Miss K. Claxton.
Apparently it all began with a school 'Nature Walk,' which one day turned itself into a 'Planet Walk.' In those days Form II still used The Sciences by E.S. Holden, and we had reached the section on the relative sizes and distances of the planets.
Leaving the sun, represented by a circle two feet in diameter on the classroom blackboard, we set out from school carefully carrying our planets! After 41 paces we placed Mercury (the size of a canary seed) on an Oxford pavement. After 77 paces Venus, represented by a small pea, was laid down. The Earth (a pea), Mars (a small bead), Jupiter (an orange), Saturn (a golf ball) were duly placed—the last after zealous counting of 1,019 paces. Then we let our imaginations finish the walk, for it seemed best to turn back while our enthusiasm and our legs still remained fresh!
The follow-up to this came with the reading of The Age of Fable, when the children became more intimate with the characters of the Greek gods and goddesses and the nature of their kingdoms. And then one morning, March 14th, 1930, we read in the daily papers of the discovery of a new planet, a 'dark' one.
The Age of Fable (1855), by Thomas Bulfinch, recounts the story of Pluto's abduction of Proserpine, and her mother Ceres' search to find her in the underworld - not unlike Percival Lowell's search for the mysterious Planet X in the outer darkness of the solar system. However the silence, the lapping waters, the murky atmosphere, the deep pits and the darkness of the realms of the dead are most vividly described in Bulfinch's retelling of Aeneas's descent under the Earth. Clearly this made a great impression on Venetia.
Falconer Madan later acknowledged the role Miss Claxton's teaching had played in Venetia's thought process. He wrote to her in June 1930 to say that Venetia's:
acquaintance with some of the old legends of Greek and Roman deities and heroes, and that 'nature walk' in the University Parks, by which she was taught the relative spaces between the Planets and the Sun, and the gloom of distance, enabled her to grasp at once the special elements of the situation, and to be the first to make a suggestion so reasonable as to be accepted (it appears) by the whole world of Science.

The chain of chance

Falconer Madan pondered his granddaughter's suggestion, and dropped a note to his friend Professor Herbert Hall Turner, a Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. Professor Turner then sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory (misspelling Venetia's name), requesting consideration of Pluto as the name for such a 'dark, gloomy planet'.

From the Lowell Observatory Archives

As it turns out, Venetia wasn't the only person who thought of Pluto. After all, the major planets had all received the names of Greek and Roman gods, and there were only so many to go around.  However, her connections to astronomy through her grandfather's friendship with Professor Turner, and her great-uncle's previous efforts in planetary nomenclature, made her story the right one for the time. On May 1 1930, the name became official.

A life in science

After her stellar intervention in planetary science, Venetia attended a secondary school (most likely as a boarder) which had a heavy focus on mathematics and science. She went on to study mathematics at Newnham College at Cambridge University. Newnham, established in 1871 to give women an opportunity to attend university, had a proud tradition in mathematics. One of its founders was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who in 1870 topped the entire university in maths (and later became a famous suffragist). However, women could not officially receive degrees until 1948, so Venetia would have received a discreet certificate in the mail, her name, like nearly 1000 other women, not even appearing in the graduation lists.
During the Second World War she put her mathematical skills to a more mundane use by training as a chartered accountant. She married Maxwell Phair, a classics teacher, in 1947; and perhaps influenced by him, and memories of Miss Claxton's creative approach to learning, she became a teacher herself in the 1950s. Naturally, she taught new generations in her own areas of expertise.

The legacy of a legend

When the New Horizons mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, Venetia was invited, but at the age of 88 did not feel up to the transatlantic journey. She had never made a big deal out of her role in Pluto's birth as the newest member of the solar system, but appreciated the recognition:
I have my kind invitation from NASA, and I treasure that too. I shall put it on the mantelpiece, I think, conspicuously, to look at. And I just wish everybody concerned with the launch that the whole thing will be the success that they hope.

Venetia Burney never saw Pluto through a telescope; her only glimpse of it was a dim photograph. But now, an instrument named after her is hurtling through space towards the ninth planet. Fittingly, for someone who devoted their life to science education, it is a student experiment: the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter.

And over the months to come, the topographical and geological features of our least known planetary neighbour will be given names on the theme of the underworld and exploration, as determined by a young girl on a morning in the world long ago.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The birth of the cable tie and augmented reality: a synergy

I love it when random things turn out to have a deeper connection. One of the joys of research is falling into those rabbit holes where only you can see the significance of the jars on the shelves, because of the chain of events that led you to be in possession of certain facts. Or perhaps a strong desire for vegemite on toast. OK, perhaps I can only stretch this metaphor so far.
(Incidentally, one of my recurring dreams evokes the Sheep's Shop in Through the Looking Glass. Needless to say, I identify strongly with Alice).
Readers may be aware of how one such serendipitous chain of connections led me to understand the significance of the humble cable tie, following a survey of the Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station in the Australian Capital Territory. My research on the cable tie's history led me to inventor Maurus C. Logan, who worked for electrical outfitter Thomas and Betts. In the late 1950s, he visited a Boeing aircraft factory and watched the workers fitting a wiring harness. One of their tasks was to secure bundles of wires (cables) together with waxed string. The string turned their hands into a bloody mess, a condition known as 'hamburger hands' because their resemblance to hamburger meat.
'There has to be a better way', thought the kind-hearted Maurus, and so away he went and invented the cable tie. (More of the story will be told in my forthcoming publication on cable ties in Frederick and Clarke (eds) That was then, this is now: contemporary archaeology in Australia).
At the moment, I'm trying to piece together another story about two unusual material things, congohelium and computronium. My methodology is anamnesis and metaphor. I'm reading widely to try and 'remember the future' and ferret out of the deep recesses of my mind and viscera exactly what I meant when I put these two unconnected things together. What I'm really trying to say here is that I concocted a paper title because it sounded good, then wrote an abstract, and now have to find out what it's really all about. I'm choosing to make a virtue of what is really lack of planning. The anamnetic technique is based on the assumption that my unconscious knew something about why I connected these two things, and by using literature as a catalyst, I'm trying to draw it into the shallows of my conscious mind so that I can give a coherent paper at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in New York in two days.
My research has not been systematic, but I have managed to read a couple of things that have achieved that crystallisation for me. Good for the progress of the paper. But in the process, a cyborg rabbit, using its watch as an external storage device, has led me to a small piece of information that probably has resonated only with me in this precise way.
In the early 1990s, some engineers and scientists came up with the idea of Augmented Reality. Not virtual reality - this was not an attempt to digitally recreate the experience of reality. Augmented reality is rather the overlaying of new information on what we perceive in the everyday world. It's the sort of thing that proponents of wearable tech are exploring.
Have three guesses where this concept emerged.

Please try a little harder!
Oh OK, I give in.
At Boeing. In the context of aircraft wiring harnesses.
I nearly fell off my chair when I read this.
Now, as well as the issue of the waxed string and its terrible impact on human hands, one of the problems created by the evolution of aircraft was how to get cables into inaccessible parts of the aerodynamic structure. I believe that ferrets were at one period trained to carry the cables to remote parts of the aircraft structure where neither human nor hands could get. The point of the augmented reality was to enhance the invisible and future parts of the system with the idealised plan for the location of the cables in the harness. I'm guessing they didn't need the ferrets after that.
In writing this I'm struck by the disjunction between the - probable - constraints of aircraft structure and the need to get certain components into it in certain ways. Basically, they don't go well together. It's a more than awkward fit. Something always gives, whether it's flesh or aircraft or poor little ferrets. The system is mashed together so that it works, but there's always something sticking out, not smooth. Push it back in and it pops out somewhere else. Technology is not a smooth ball of functionality: it's a bag of snakes writhing and twisting within their boundary conditions.

So with these thoughts, I'll get back to my reading!


Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The frozen Martian dreams of new worlds

This image was taken at the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla, a wonderful place where the Voyagers' thin whisper is captured by metal paraboloid ears listening with all their might, the limbs of dead and frozen antennas startle you as you turn a corner, and kangaroos lollop lazily about as if space communication was just one more passing fad and they were ready for a spot of afternoon tea grass, actually.

Author's image.
I couldn't help but think of Martian tripod locomotion when I saw this. It's quite a beautiful structure. It feels like it might just lift it's feet, creaking, out of the cement footings, and continue stalking across the landscape.