Placing outer space : an earthly ethnography of other worlds
Author(s)Messeri, Lisa Rebecca
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Program in Science, Technology and Society.
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This dissertation concerns the role of place in scientific practice. Ideas of place, I argue, shape and are shaped by science. I specifically look at the community of planetary scientists who, though they cannot step foot on the objects they study, transform planets into places. This is an ethnographic work that draws on 18 months of fieldwork during which time I encountered several different communities of planetary scientists. At MIT, I worked alongside astronomers looking for planets around other stars. These "exoplanet" astronomers transformed numerical counts of photons into complex worlds with atmospheres and weather. Data visualizations characterized the work of a community learning to see unseen planets in specific, place-based ways. I also traveled with an astronomer to a Chilean observatory where she studied the night sky hoping to find a "habitable planet." Many other astronomers share this goal and have designed various ways to detect a planet like Earth. The importance of these projects signifies that exoplanet astronomers are more interested in finding planetary kin - planets that are familiar places - than exotic aliens. To determine how the planetary places created by exoplanet astronomers differ from those in our own Solar System, I spent time at the NASA Ames Research Center with a group of computer scientists who create high resolution and three-dimensional maps of Mars. These maps reflect the kind of place Mars is today: it is available to everyone to explore, it is displayed such that you can imagine standing on the surface, and it is presented as geologically dynamic in ways similar to Earth. Even though these maps help give Mars a sense of place, Martian science is still stymied by the inability to send humans to its surface. Instead, planetary scientists travel to terrestrial sites deemed to be "Mars-like" to approximate performing geologic fieldwork on Mars. I went to one of these locations to see how, during these outings, Mars and Earth become entwined as scientists forge connections between two planetary places. These diverse scientific activities, I conclude, are transforming our view of the cosmos. Outer space is becoming outer place.
Thesis (Ph. D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS))--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Program in Science, Technology and Society, 2011.Cataloged from PDF version of thesis.Includes bibliographical references (p. 269-283).
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Program in Science, Technology and Society.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Program in Science, Technology and Society.