Sunday, December 14, 2014

Shadows on the Moon: an ephemeral archaeology

A picture of the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972 got me thinking about shadows on the moon as part of the archaeology of the six human landing sites.

Apollo 17 panorama. Image courtesy of NASA
The peculiar character of light on the Moon of course forms part of the corpus of conspiracy theories claiming the lunar landings were faked. It's argued that the shadows seen in photographs and film footage are caused by the lighting in the studio where actors lumbered about pretending to be in low gravity, rather than the Sun. Or something like that. To be honest, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the conspiracy theories.
(But I will offer this gem from the sublime Mitchell and Webb).

Shadows on the Moon are, however, of great interest from a completely different perspective. Years ago, I was in the library at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation headquarters here in Adelaide, and found a book that has stuck in my memory. It was a study written for US Congress, in the 1980s, on warfare in space. The chapter on the Moon was all about how lunar conditions would affect hand-to-hand combat. The author, a military expert, noted that many of the properties of lunar light would make a sort of shoot-out situation particularly interesting. For example, if you hid from someone in a shadow on Earth, you would still be visible. Light diffuses through our heavy atmosphere and shadows can be all sorts of colours (vide Goethe: 'colour itself is a degree of darkness').
On the Moon, shadows are as black as Hades. Although reflection from the lunar surface will still illuminate objects in shadow, if you go deep enough into one, for example, under a boulder overhang or in a crater, you can be invisible to observation.
You're also cold. The temperature in shadow drops markedly.
In a battle with human protagonists, terrestrial instincts may lead you far astray.
But let's move on from this gloomy topic and get back to the archaeology.
One thing the astronauts from the Apollo missions brought to the Moon was new shadows, shadows that were cast by machines and bodies and flags and rovers, in an interplay of movement and stillness. The speed of the shadows differed depending on the activity being carried out. Some were solid black and some were textured. They crossed and uncrossed with the angle of the sun and the movement of the astronauts around the tiny landscapes that constituted their lunar experience.

The shadows were captured and frozen in many, many photographs of all Apollo missions; in these photographs, they became a different type of artefact. I would be curious to know if anyone (apart from conspiracy theorists) has analysed the shadows in these images.
Apollo 12 ALSEP instrument package. Image courtesy of NASA
Apollo 14. Note the beautiful transparent shadow of the mesh antenna, like a flattened sea creature. Image courtesy of NASA. 
And then some shadows left, never to return, and other shadows stayed to be swallowed by the lunar night and to emerge into day again. The shadows of the flags, descent modules, rovers, cameras, and other equipment are now cast over the lunar regolith until something causes the object to decay in tens, hundreds or thousands of years. The objects left behind don't move, but their shadows circle them in diurnal devotion, sundials without a mission.

The shadows may, however, be of more than passing interest in considering the taphonomy of lunar sites.  There's some evidence to suggest that dust levitates as the terminator passes over, due to changing electrical potentials. There may be small-scale surface dust movement as shadow boundaries change, creating sub-millimetre electrical fields that cause dust particles to accelerate and collide with each other (NASA 2011). So the dust environment of the objects left on the Moon may be not static, and we don't know what the long-term impacts on material degradation are.
Now, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter uses the shadows to detect the presence of these orphaned items of material culture.
Apollo 15, photographed by the LRO. Image courtesy of NASA.
There's only one way to finish this post: with a quote from Cat Stevens' classic hit Moonshadow:
Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light.
Did it take long to find me? And are you gonna stay the night?

NASA 2011 NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of US Government Artefacts. Human Exploration and Operat6ions Mission Directorate, Strategic Analysis and Integration Division, NASA

Note: updated 16/12/2014 to include paragraph on photographs. Updated on 21/1/2015 to include paragraph on dust levitation.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

In the mind's eye: the topology of Interstellar

So, I finally saw Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar (2014), after carefully avoiding all possible spoilers for weeks.

Wow. Just wow.

So much to say and think. I haven't looked up any reviews or commentaries yet, wanting to write about what really struck me without clouding my thoughts.

The first thing, soon said, is ROBOTS! Coolest. Robots. Ever. I hope they were based on real proposals for robot architecture because I want those robots.

The second thing is the representation of multidimensional space. The moment I realised the behind-the-bookcase space was five dimensions was revelatory. Amazing how they did that, how they made a 2D representation of 5D. Really fuckin' impressed, excuse my French.

As I was starting to understand how they put it together, two books I have been profoundly influenced by sprang to mind, followed by a third.

One was Greg Egan's wonderful novel Diaspora (1997), which is all about different kinds of non-Euclidean space. Egan has an extraordinary ability, through words alone, to make you almost see and feel higher dimensional spaces. My copy is hiding in the bookcases somewhere or I would at this point be quoting large chunks to demonstrate the sheer brilliance of it.

Much later, I was writing a paper about how gravity structures the archaeological record in Earth and space and the necessity of coming to grips with non-Euclidean space (The Gravity of Archaeology, which you can find here). I had to read a lot of topology, and in my quest for understanding I came across another extraordinary book: J.R. Weeks' The Shape of Space: How to visualise surfaces and three-dimensional manifolds (1985). Unlike Egan, he could legitimately use lots of diagrams (I have a feeling that diagrams might be a bit of a mood-killer in a novel), but again he was trying to show you how to visualise higher dimensional and non-Euclidean spaces in two or three dimensions. 

It's a freaky feeling when you realise you have just visualised something in seven dimensions.

Five dimensional hypercube, courtesy of Virtual Flower

Our brains, however, are not really made for such stuff. For me, at least, the experience of reading Egan and Weeks is feeling these dimensions just on the edges of vision; you can almost see them, and your brain can almost comprehend them, before a sort of vertigo sets in and the glimpse is lost. It's really hard to hold onto the moments of clarity when your flesher body lets go of its verticality and physical extension to split itself across a manifold.

Of course no discussion of other-dimensional realities would be complete without a nod to Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions (Edwin Abbott, 1884) - topology PLUS social satire!

Oh and the final one: Madeleine l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time - remember the tesseract?

I'm giddy now with all this brainwork and must go and lie down for a while.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Space Archaeology: The Next Decade.

This is the abstract for the paper I gave at the annual Australian Archaeological Association conference last week in Cairns.

Space archaeology: the next decade.

When space archaeology emerged in 2003, it divided opinions. Ten years on, space archaeology is now represented in encyclopaedias and handbooks, and an impressive body of work has accumulated. NASA has produced guidelines for managing lunar heritage and there are plans to register the Apollo 11 Tranquility Base site as a national or world heritage site. Some, such as Michael Schiffer, have contextualised space archaeology within an ‘archaeology of science’, while others situate it within ‘the archaeology of the contemporary past’. In this paper I review how the directions and ideas that emerged from the first conference session at the World Archaeological Congress have developed. Despite critiques of these approaches, nationalist agendas and ‘Space Race’ narratives are still a large part of how space archaeology is framed. There is a dearth of fieldwork and analysis of material remains from terrestrial space sites, which is partially a result of few active practitioners, and security issues around military sites. Moreover, the technical knowledge needed to understand and investigate the machinery of space exploration is not a standard part of an archaeological education. Given the constraints, what are the most realistic directions for future research in this subfield? I sketch a decadal plan for space archaeology and heritage management.

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'an 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

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.

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

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.

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.

Sadly, the "crewed" option doesn't work so well when spoken aloud.

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 @DarkSapiens

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

If none of this is sufficient to persuade you, then I refer you to NASA's own Style Guide:

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.

Thanks to @Smiffy and @4DC5 for their suggestions, and @DarkSapiens for the Sagan image. @ArielWaldman alerted me to the NASA Style Guide.
Updated to add Sagan 13 October 2014
Updated to add NASA Style Guide and minor changes to improve readability on 21 August 2015

Quotes from 1 - 6 are taken from History of Manned Spaceflight - Part I: The Pioneers. Quotes 7 - 8 are from Space exploration.

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

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.

Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

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 mould 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.  

Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia

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

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.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Evolution, orbital debris, and Laika's ghost

Laika's Ghost is a short story by Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder. Gardner Dozois (I love you, Gardner, best science fiction editor in the world ever) included it in his Mammoth Book of Best New SF 25 (2012). Dozois' introduction says the story 'takes us to a desolate future Russia haunted by ghosts of the Soviet past, where a game is being played for the highest stakes of all'.

Don't worry, there are no spoilers. The following passage, naturally, struck me. One of the characters, Ambrose, laments:
Then when I was twelve the Pakistan-Indian war happened and they blew up each other's satellites. All that debris from the explosions is going to be up there for centuries! You can't even get a manned [sic] spacecraft through that cloud, it's like shrapnel. Hell, they haven't even cleared low Earth orbit to restart the orbital tourist industry. I'll never get to really go there! None of us will. We're never getting off this sinkhole. 
In this scenario, human access to space has been closed off by a catastrophic space debris event, killing a vibrant space tourism industry, and with it dreams of Martian settlement. Earth governments or authorities - 'they' - appear helpless, unable or unwilling to initiate a clean-up operation.

The last image is compelling. Ambrose paints the Earth as a sinkhole, a low energy point of stable equilibrium in a dynamical system, that we're stranded at the bottom of. How will we scale the gravity walls to emerge into space now? Outside is the danger of shrapnel, as if it were a WWI trench.

To my archaeologist's mind, another vision comes: the famous sinkhole site in South Africa, Swartkrans, where it was first discovered that our ancestors the Australopithecines were not mighty hunters kick-starting the evolutionary process to modern humans by cooking a few chops, (while defending the female-types cowering back in the cave from leopards), but were rather prey to the carnivores instead.

What is the archaeological signature of a culture that made it into space and then retreated? In this future scenario, Earth becomes Swartkrans rather than Olduvai.

A leopard sinks its teeth into a hominid cranium

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How I became a space archaeologist Part II

For long-time readers, I'm going to take up the story where I left it in How I became a space archaeologist. As you recall, I was working in Queensland when the idea of investigating the archaeology and heritage of orbital debris came to me one night while on my verandah looking up at the stars. Later that year (2002), I finished the contract I was working on and took up a position as Senior Conservation Officer in the Heritage Branch of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Central Queensland town of Rockhampton. After work and on weekends, I'd sit at my tiny desk with a dial-up connection and surf the web to learn about space. I made tables of spacecraft and launch dates; I read histories of space programs and trawled through sites like Encyclopedia Astronautica. And I became aware, for the first time, that Australia had a rich and diverse space history of its own. I was astonished by how little I knew of events that took place during my childhood.

In these early days, despite my lack of knowledge, themes that have since become dominant in my work started to emerge. Vanguard 1 and the Woomera launch site in South Australia quickly became part of my research pantheon. As my background was Aboriginal archaeology, it was hard not to also look at how Woomera had impacted on the lives of Aboriginal people. I thought about what it was that an archaeological approach could bring to the study of space exploration, and I thought about how you would apply Burra Charter principles to stuff in space, answering the question I had first posed myself back on the verandah of my Queenslander.

December approached: the month in which the big annual Australian Archaeological Association conference took place. I think it was in Townsville that year, and I had funding from the EPA to attend. The conference was a turning point. One of my cousins, Anna Morgan, was there. She made an important introduction. She had studied archaeology at James Cook University with Professor John Campbell. In his classes, she said, he had talked about doing archaeology in space.

What an amazing coincidence! But more was to come. When I sat down with John and talked about what I wanted to do, he informed me that there was a third person who was interested in space archaeology: Beth Laura O'Leary from New Mexico State University. Suddenly I had colleagues! And John was involved in organising a session at the 5th World Archaeological Congress in Washington DC the following year. Would I like to present a paper in it? he asked me.

It seemed the timing was right. I had about five months to prepare: to make my thoughts and ideas coalesce into something concrete enough to present, and to get enough money together for an overseas trip.

And so I continued to spend my weekends at the tiny desk, reading and thinking, and also learning how to use powerpoint. I don't think I had ever used it before this; the pictures I used for my PhD presentations were on overheads and slides. Soon it seemed that one paper wasn't going to be enough to contain all that I wanted to talk about, and I sent two abstracts in. One was about general themes for space archaeology; and the other - I think, I will have to try and find it, was about orbital debris. Both abstracts were accepted.

Now a more serious issue raised its head. Already, I was struggling to access the information I needed with the current incarnation of the World Wide Web, and in the library of Central Queensland University. I was doing this in my spare time, and it wasn't easy to negotiate leave to attend conferences that weren't strictly work-related. I would be taking leave to attend the World Archaeological Congress in April 2003. When I returned, everything would be the same. Was I serious about this research? I searched my soul and decided that I had never been more serious about anything in my life. So if this was the case, I had to accept that living in Central Queensland and working at an unrelated job was not going to further my research. I was going to have to leave.

This was a tough realisation, because I loved my life at that point. Working at the EPA was great; I had excellent colleagues, and I enjoyed the pace of the public service. I loved living in the beautiful coastal town of Yeppoon. I was presenting a world music show on the local community radio station, Radio NAG, and my radio friends were a delight and joy. Every now and then I would escape to Brisbane for a touch of city life. It was all pretty excellent.

But to make my vision of space archaeology happen, I would have to quit my job, leave Yeppoon, and take a leap into the unknown.

So I did. I submitted my resignation, effective from the end of March 2003. I packed up my house and put everything into storage, keeping only one suitcase, my laptop, and some books and papers. I booked my flights to Washington. I registered for the World Archaeological Congress. I worked on the two presentations. I thought about the future endlessly, and I tried not to think about the future.

For some reason, I don't really remember why now, I had decided some media around my papers would be a good idea. One of the journalists at the University of New England (where I was an adjunct) helped me put together a media release. It seemed to strike a chord. With only a few days before I left, the phone ran hot. I think I did around seven radio interviews on my mobile in just one day while I was running around like a headless chook trying to tie up all the loose ends.

Finally all was done. Almost everything I owned was in storage, and it would be seven years before I was able to retrieve it. The house had been cleaned and inspected. I'd had my last day at work, and a farewell party in Rockhampton at my friend Marianne's house. It was time to go.