Bibliography of Space Archaeology

Sunday, April 19, 2015

From Stone Age to Space Age: the impact of Woomera on Aboriginal people

In 1946–7, as a joint project between the UK and Australia, the Long Range Weapons Establishment was set up [at Woomera] approximately 450 km north of Adelaide. The area was considered remote and unproductive, a treeless gibber plain with few water sources. Everything had to be constructed from scratch: roads, airstrips, workshops, housing, leisure facilities. Water was piped at great expense to supply the new range (Morton 1989:123–126).

However, not everyone in Australia supported the establishment of a rocket range aimed at developing nuclear missiles. There was widespread consternation at the decision, in the wake of World War II, to enter into a nuclear arms race, and concern about the impact of the rocket range on Aboriginal people (Watt 1947; Duguid 1947). Under the leadership of Dr Charles Duguid, the Presbyterian Church spearheaded a nation-wide protest movement that involved over 50 community groups, trade unions and Aboriginal rights organisations.
Image courtesy of
National Museum of Australia
The protest gathered high profile supporters: Duguid himself, the anthropologist Donald Thomson, Member of Parliament Doris Blackburn, the Aboriginal activist Pastor Doug Nichols, and many others. Debate raged about the place that Aboriginal people held in white Australian society, with views ranging from the familiar expectation that Aboriginal people were on the verge of extinction (e.g. Bates 1938), to calls for greater assimilation - or protection. In response, the Australian government branded the protest leaders as communist dupes and placed them under surveillance.

Advised by Sydney University anthropologist A.P. Elkin, the government took the line that Woomera would, at most, accelerate processes both unavoidable and already evident among the Aboriginal groups of central and southern Australia: ‘‘coming in’’ from the desert to missions, increasing reliance on European food and medicines, and exposure to alcohol, disease and other vices of civilisation. A supposedly independent committee set up to examine the impact of the range on Aboriginal people dismissed the representations of Duguid and Thomson. Disillusioned, Duguid withdrew from spotlight and the first phase of protests at Woomera was effectively over.

The survey and construction of the rocket range infrastructure progressed throughout the late 1940s, and the first missile test took place in 1949. Now movement was restricted within the prohibited area of the range, and Aboriginal people could no longer access many ceremonial sites and resources: they were competing for precious water with the needs of the rocket range. Roads were pushed through, bringing people, equipment, and encounters for which neither group had much preparation. A policy of non-intervention led to fraught interactions where Woomera and other government employees were forbidden to assist Aboriginal groups even when they were in obvious need of food, water, transport or medicine (Morton 1989:83, 87). This situation held until 1967, when Aboriginal people finally became recognised as citizens of Australia. Meanwhile, in Woomera Village, people collected stone artefacts from the desert, and pondered on the contrast between the Stone Age and the Space Age (Gorman 2005a).

These events are not, I have argued, peripheral to the understanding of the Woomera rocket range as a space site. They are an integral aspect of its significance that relates to the colonial processes at work in the growth of space industry (Gorman 2005b; Gorman forthcoming). Nor was the conjunction of space/protest an isolated one in the history of space exploration.
 
 
 

This is an excerpt from Gorman, A.C. 2007 La Terre et l'espace: rockets, prison, protests and heritage in Australia and French Guiana. Archaeologies: the Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 3(2):153-167

Further reading and resources can be found at Collaborating for Indigenous Rights.


References
Bates, D. 1938. The Passing of the Aborigines. A lifetime Spent Among the Natives of Australia. London: John Murray.
Duguid, C. 1947 The Rocket Range, Aborigines and War. Melbourne: Rocket Range Protest Committee
Gorman, A.C. 2005a. From the Stone Age to the Space Age: Interpreting the Significance of Space Exploration at Woomera. Unpublished Paper Presented at the Symposium Home on the Range: The Cold War, Space Exploration and Heritage at Woomera, South Australia, Flinders University, November 2005
Gorman, A.C. 2005b. The Cultural Landscape of Interplanetary Space. Journal of Social Archaeology 5(1):85–107.
Morton, P. 1989. Fire Across the Desert. Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Programme, 1946–80. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service
Watt, A. 1947 Rocket Range Threatens Australia. Adelaide: South Australian State Committee, Communist Party of Australia









Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cold War, colonialism, and the meaning of space hardware.

Spacecraft are more than utilitarian objects that further industrial, environmental or military objectives. They can also be regarded as artefacts, the material record of a particular phase in human social and technological development. On Earth, the preservation of material culture is considered important at a number of different levels: because it tells a story that is different to that presented in written documents, because it supplements written history, because material culture is the repository of people’s memories, ideas, and attachments. Material culture both shapes the world and is shaped by it:
 
….the things which constitute our world, which direct its functions, in turn influence our most basic cultural assumptions. A society which has access to jet aeroplanes, fast cars, and an international mass media based on television, fax machines and the information super-highway views the world entirely differently from a society dependent on the bullock dray and sea mail. (Anderson 1997)
 
That people see the material culture of space exploration as important is demonstrated by the popularity of museums such as the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. More people visit NASM than any other Smithsonian institution. They don’t go to see photographs of space, or to read interpretations of space history on storyboards. Words are not unique, and they are cheap. So why are visitors drawn in such staggering numbers to this museum?
 
Skylab module in NASM.
Image courtesy of http://whizzospace.com/
Because the NASM has on display a Gemini capsule, a section of Skylab, and an astronaut’s complete moon-walking suit … It’s the artifacts, stupid (Smith 2004).
 
At the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Communication Complex near Canberra, around 70 000 people each year come to the Visitor Centre to see a piece of the Moon and items of flown space hardware. The material culture of space exploration captures something that no written word can convey, and an object that has flown in space is perceived as more charged with meaning than a model, prototype or unflown spacecraft.
 
The material culture of space exploration is clearly seen as significant. However, its significance is often assumed to be self-evident. A well-used aphorism in the space community maintains that space exploration is the outcome of an innate human urge to explore. Thus, space objects are perceived to have a globally understood meaning that appeals to our common human nature (Gorman 2005). Just as the great navigators and explorers ventured out into unknown seas to discover the New World, so we have now left the cradle of Earth to satisfy a fundamental curiosity about our universe. This curiosity is one of the most commonly cited rationales for pursuing space exploration, far more palatable than the realpolitik of military and commercial dominance.


Another implicit and popular model for understanding the significance of space material culture is what I have called the Space Race model (Gorman 2005). In this formulation, objects and places have significance for their contribution to the Cold War confrontation between the USA and the USSR. This model focuses on these two states, ignoring the achievements of other countries like France, Britain, China, Japan and Australia in the development of space technology. It emphasises competitiveness rather than cooperation in space, and overlooks the contributions of and impacts on non-spacefaring countries, such as the colonial territories where potentially dangerous space installations were located. The relationship of space exploration to inequalities between the developed and developing world is unexplored, and indeed unproblematic, in the Space Race scenario, where US hegemony in space is assumed to benefit all.
 
The significance space artefacts might hold, therefore, is far from obvious.
 
 
 
Note: This is an excerpt from Gorman, A.C. 2005 The Archaeology of Orbital Space.
In Australian Space Science Conference 2005; pages: [338-357]. Melbourne: RMIT University
 
References
Anderson, M. 1997 Material culture and the cultural environment: Objects and places. Australia: State of the Environment Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra
Gorman, A.C. 2005 The cultural landscape of interplanetary space.  Journal of Social Archaeology 5(1):85-107
Smith, Bill 2004 It’s the artifacts, stupid! Guest Editorial. The Mineralogical Record 35(2):106-107
 

 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Dr Space Junk's Guide to Voting For Names of Surface Features on Pluto

When the New Horizons mission reaches Pluto and its moons in July 2015, there'll be hundreds of surface features that have never been seen before and which will need new names. The theme for these names is exploration and the underworld.


Image courtesy of NASA
The International Astronomical Union is in charge of allocating names in the solar system. But the New Horizons mission team have got together with the SETI Institute to get the public to contribute to a shortlist for their consideration.
 
“Pluto belongs to everyone,” says New Horizon science team member Mark Showalter, also a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute.  “So we want everyone to be involved in making the map of this distant world.” 
 
You're my kind of guy, Mark Showalter.
 
But of course, one of the questions that immediately arises, to me anyway, is how many women-type of people will get a look-in in this process. So I went to the list to see what the representation was like. Let's just say, no surprises.
 
So with this in mind, I've done the hard work so you don't have to! Here is a list of women or female beings who are part of the longlist so far. And yes, you can vote for more than one. I'm also going to include some honourable mentions at the end that are just so cool you couldn't not want them to be the name of something on Pluto or Charon (the largest moon).
 
Happy voting! And remember to do it before April 24th. Full instructions are here.
 

History of exploration

Jeanne Baré (or Baret; botanist; first woman to circumnavigate the globe)
Alexandrine Tinné (Dutch explorer of Egypt)
Sacagawea (US Native American - Lewis and Clarke guide)
 

Fictional Explorers and Travelers

Eleanor Arroway (from Contact - Carl Sagan)
Alice (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll) VOTE FOR ALICE. As someone who has identified with Alice from earliest childhood, I most certainly will be.
Arthur Dent/Trillian/Zaphod Beeblebrox (from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). She was smarter than the rest of them put together.
Candide/Cunegonde/Pangloss (from Voltaire's Candide)
Dorothy Gale & Toto (from Oz books - L. Frank Baum)
Kaguya-hime (Japanese folktale) You get double value with this one, as it's also the nickname of a Japanese lunar orbiter (separately listed).
Kathryn Janeway (from TV's Star Trek: Voyager)
Skywalker/Solo/Leia/Kenobi (from Star Wars films)
 

 

Exploration Authors and Artists

Octavia E. Butler (US - author of Xenogenesis trilogy) I've never read Octavia Butler, but I really, really should.
Madeleine L'Engle (US author - A Wrinkle in Time) Now I'm sorry, but I will brook no opposition on this. Vote for Madeleine. If you were not moved to fear, horror, compassion and love by A Wrinkle in Time, you are barely human. If you have not read it, get thee to a library forthwith.
Anne McCaffrey (US-Irish author - Pern and Talents series) Rollicking good science fiction-fantasy yarns that entranced millions. 
Alice Sheldon (US author - A Momentary Taste of Being) AKA James Tiptree Jnr, a wonderful science fiction author. Her family background is also discussed in Donna Haraway's Primate Visions.
 

Travelers to the Underworld

Proserpina (kidnapped by Hades) I prefer the Greek Persephone but whatever.
Inanna & Dumuzi (from Sumerian mythology)
Orfeo & Euridice (from Greek mythology) Please read this poem about Eurydice by H.D (Hilda Dolittle), but be warned it will break your heart.
Virgil & Beatrice (from Dante's Inferno)
 

Underworld Beings

Tuoni & Tuonetar (Finnish mythology)
Ereshkigal (Sumerian mythology)
Alecto/Megaera/Tisiphone (Furies or Erinyes - Greek mythology)
Ammit (Devourer of Souls - Egyptian mythology)
Melinoë (Bringer of nightmares - Greek mythology)
 

Honourable Mentions

Phileas Fogg (from Around the World in 80 days). However, it should really be Passepartout, who did all the hard work anyway.
Tintin (from graphic novels by Hergé)
Gallifrey (Planet of the Time Lords - Dr Who)
Heart of Gold (Infinite Improbability spaceship, from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
Dawn Treader (by C. S. Lewis)
Chesley Bonestell (US space artist)
Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch painter of Hellish scenes) This is so obvious I don't know why it's even a matter of voting.
Stanislaw Lem (Polish science fiction author) Because I love that man's writing so much.
Maurice Sendak (US author - Where the Wild Things Are) Nuff said.
Baralku (Yolngu culture, Australia) Baralku is the Island of the Dead. You must vote for this because it is from the same region of Australia as the Aboriginal music on the Voyager Golden Records.
Sun Wukong (Monkey King - Chinese mythology) MONKEY. Do you hear me? This is Monkey.
Cthulhu (from H. P. Lovecraft)
 
 
Notes: on the official website, they mostly link to Wikipedia, but I've linked to other sites where I think there is more interesting or nuanced information. Sometimes, Wikipedia does have the best information online so I've stuck with that.

The longlist is quite long, and it's possible I've missed a few - if so, let me know and I'll add them.

If you think there are women/entities who ought to be on the official longlist but aren't, it's worth checking the Gazetteer to see if they haven't already been used elsewhere in the solar system.

My list here, and the commentary on it, are of course my personal views, and you are free to disagree or ignore them as you wish.
 
 
 
 
 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Congohelium and computronium: the thinking materials of the far future

This is my abstract for the Theoretical Archaeology Group New York University conference in May 2015.


In this paper, I want to explore two materials of the far future and use them to imagine the material worlds they inhabit. In Cordwainer Smith’s classic short story Under Old Earth, congohelium is an unstable material composed of “matter and antimatter laminated apart by a dual magnetic grid” (Smith 1966). The Douglas-Ouyang planets, an artificial cluster of planets with a dull malevolent sentience, communicate with Earth through the music of the congohelium.
Sunboy makes music with the congohelium
Computronium is the material of a hypothetical giant super-computing Matrioshka Brain, structured as nested Dyson shells of processing elements which employ the entire energy output of the sun. In Robert Bradbury’s conception, an element of computronium consists of a cooling system, a solar power array, a nanoprocessor and vernier thrusters for station-keeping – very like contemporary satellites. In the far future, today’s satellites could be considered equivalent to eoliths, with some resemblance of form, yet barely recognisable as cultural artefacts.
 
In both cases we have materials which act as the intermediary between an unimaginable entity and the humans who desire to communicate with it. They are the new elements in a periodic table of thinking materials. How would we classify these materials as archaeologists, or use them to infer the behaviour of mega-engineered structures? This is the most extreme anthropocene, where the balance of materials between ‘natural’ and ‘manufactured’ is altered at the nano- and solar-system scale; where prosaic science meets a new poetics of space.
 
 

Saturday, February 07, 2015

You say potato, I say citizen of Mars. Space travel in the vegetable kingdom.

One of the things I love about my particular niche in the space world is that it brings me into contact with artists working in science and technology. This kind of interaction is also a feature of the archaeology of the contemporary past. I like to think that both are about the transformative potential of material culture.
 
In 2010, artist Jonathon Keats created the Local Air and Space Administration (LASA) and launched the research careers of vegetable astronauts. This project has always appealed to my interest in amateur, popular, citizen engagement with space and I've been meaning to write about it ever since.
 
Ostensibly, Keats was frustrated by NASA's abandonment of interplanetary exploration back then and decided to take matters into his own hands. Without launch capability, he had to take a novel approach: don't go to the stars, explore the star stuff that has come to us.
I took an ordinary chondrite meteorite and smashed it with a hammer, and then I planted these two cacti in the rubble since cacti sometimes grow in rocky soil. They lived on the asteroid isolated under a bell jar for twenty-one days, exploring the alien terrain by osmosis. The total cost was around $25, plus $2.99 each for the cacti (Interview, 21 October 2010).

Succulent space travellers. Image courtesy of Jonathon Keats/LASA

The technique of simulating alien environments was then repeated using minute quantities of lunar anorthosite (from meteorite NWA 482) and Martian shergottite (from meteorite NWA 1195). The meteorites (presumably) also contained nanodiamonds composed of dead extra-galactic star material. Keats created mineral water from these materials for potato astronauts suspended by toothpicks to osmotically explore. As he said,
The technology is fairly rudimentary – mostly just a funnel and some coffee filters – but anybody who's watched Apollo 13 knows that complexity can be deadly.
Spuds in space. Image courtesy of Jonathon Keats/LASA
 
By incorporating the exoplanetary minerals, Keats argued that the potatoes were being transformed into aliens. "On certain matters, such as the nature of Mars", he said, "potatoes now know more than we do".
 
Image courtesy of Jonathon Keats/LASA
 
Space travel wasn't just for the succulents and spuds, though. Keats mounted a chair on pieces of meteorite and embedded more pieces into the soles of slippers: in this way, on rising from the chair and putting on the slippers, any walk you undertook was a space walk.
 
And by imbibing the lunar, stellar and Martian mineral waters, sold for a 'reasonable price' by the LASA Exotourism Bureau in San Francisco, humans could also be transformed into alien hybrids.
 
There's so much I like about this project. I have to confess that I struggle with the idolisation of astronauts; there's something about the predominant narrative of the white, male colonial frontier hero that I find irritating. (The greater diversity of astronauts these days has dulled but not eclipsed this trope). There's a wonderful subversion in claiming these qualities for something without a brain. Keats says: "here's the chance for children to look up to potatoes as heroic, just as John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin were once role models".
Spacewalk slippers. Photo by Carolyne Zinko.
 
"Bargain basement procurement" is a model of space innovation that I admire because it makes space accessible. One of my all-time favourite spacecraft, the Australis Oscar V amateur satellite, was built using begged, borrowed, and off-the-shelf hardware store components. Similarly, Keats created a space programme with approximately $200 USD. He bought the meteorite fragments on eBay, and the hammer to smash them up with.
 
It's also about the materiality. The tiny bits of interplanetary, interstellar star stuff, even if you can't see them dissolved in the mineral water, have a talismanic quality. By their authenticity, they can transport you to other worlds. It's you who does the thinking, but the particles from outer space are like scrying crystals that focus your inner gaze until your insides are turned inside out and expanded to fill the universe. You become a TARDIS.

What's the point? you may ask. Keats says:
I think it has the potential to change your perspective on everything, from immigration policy to the environment to what it means to be human.
It does indeed challenge some of the conceptual underpinnings of our current interactions with space. Do the cacti and potatoes acquire rights to space through this process of hybridisation?  Keats argues that they do:
Of course by colonialist standards, potatoes will have territorial claim to Mars since they've beat Homo sapiens, and what's most hospitable to them may be to inhabit it without us around.

I have bad news for Keats, though. He was not the first to train vegetable astronauts. In 1968, Mr Potato Head went to the Moon.
 
And now cucumbers are in on the action! From Tracy's Toys (And Some Other Stuff)
 
 
 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The first Australian to orbit the Earth

Who was the first Australian in space?
 
Andy Thomas? Paul Scully-Power? I hear you say.
 
Well, no. The first Australian in space was a young boy called Neville in the early 20th century.
 
What? How was that possible before the WWII rockets? Will you tell us the story?
 
I thought you'd never ask.
 
Actually, it's not my story. Famous Australian writer C.J. Dennis first set down the events in The boy who rode into the sunset.
 
Sometime before 1921, Neville lived with his family on the outskirts of an unnamed Australian city. One evening he was standing on top of a hill watching the clouds, when one formed into a horse and approached him. The horse (rather manipulatively) enticed him to mount it, and then took flight, riding straight into the sunset.
 
The sunset is not what it seems. It's an orchestrated performance that has to continually move around the world with the terminator (the dividing line between night and day). As Neville arrives, the Last Sunbeam is getting ready to move the sunset to the next location. His boss, the head scene-shifter, isn't very pleased to see Neville, but there's a problem: how can they get him home again? The cloud horse can only follow the sunset; it can't go backwards. The only solution is for him to go round the Earth ahead of the sunset. Nev is justifiably a little nervous about this proposal, but the Last Sunbeam has it all sorted. He gives him a blue flower - made out of a 'genuine piece of sky' - which he has to give to the Porter of Dawn on the other side of the world in order to be let through. The Sky Flower will also defy gravity to allow him to jump off the cloud horse when they reach Neville's home again. The cloud horse, from this point on, loses its agency and effectively becomes a satellite.
 
So the cloud horse takes off with Neville on his back. This is what he sees as they fly over the world:
 
Almost before he knew what had happened, he had left evening far behind and was riding in broad daylight. The cloud Horse had ridden high in the air, and Neville saw the broad country, with plains and hills and forest lands, stretched far beneath him. An instant later, and the land was no longer below him, but the wide sea, sparkling in brilliant sunlight.

Before he had time to notice very much he had reached mid-day, high over a strange foreign land, and was racing through the morning toward the dawn. So quickly did he go that there was little chance of seeing anything clearly; but he had glimpses of many strange sights. Many ships he saw upon the sea--small ships and stately steamers crawling over the ocean like strange water-beetles. Once, as the Cloud Horse drifted low, Neville saw a beautiful sailing-ship, with all sails set, and strange-looking men upon the deck. They looked very like pirates, and perhaps they were; but Neville had no time to make sure, for the very next minute he was over a wild land where he saw a horde of black men, with spears and clubs, hunting an elephant through a clearing in a great jungle. As he looked, the elephant turned to charge the hunters; but what happened then Neville did not see, for in a moment more he was above a great city with crowds of people in the streets--people dressed in strange, bright-coloured clothes--and there were bells ringing and whistles blowing. Then a great desert spread beneath him, with no living thing in sight but a great tawny lion prowling over the sand. Then came the sea again, and more ships; and the light began to grow dim, for he was nearly half-way round the earth, and was approaching the dawn
.

 
He arrives at the silver gateway of the dawn. The Dawn Porter sees the Sky Flower and lets him through.
 
...in an instant Neville had passed through the dawn and plunged into the night.

It was a dark night, with no moon, for the sky was overcast with dense clouds. Above these the Cloud horse flew, and overhead Neville saw the rushing stars, and below only the blackness of heavy clouds. But more often the Cloud horse flew low, and then there was little to be seen. By the lights of moving ships Neville knew that sometimes he was above the sea. Sometimes twinkling lights in towns or solitary farms, or the sudden blaze of a great city told him that the land was beneath him. Once, through the blackness, he saw a great forest fire upon an island, and the light of it lit up the sea, and showed the natives crowded upon the beach and in the shallows, and some making off in canoes.

Then darkness swallowed the Cloud Horse again, and the blazing island was left far behind.

After that, Neville began to feel a little drowsy. Perhaps he did sleep a little, for the next thing he saw was a faint light in the sky before him, as though the dawn were coming. But he knew it must be the evening, because he was coming back to the place from which he had started, and was catching up with the sun. You see, he had only been gone a few minutes.

The Cloud Horse flew very low now; and rapidly the darkness grew less. Then, long before he expected it, Neville saw the roof of his own home below him. He could see the garden in the twilight and his own dog sniffing about among the trees as though in search of him
.
 
Using the Sky Flower, Neville jumps from the horse and arrives safely home in time for dinner. He gives the Sky Flower to his mother, and as it's a genuine piece of sky, it never fades.
 
Neville's view as he approaches his house
 
 
To get around the world in a few minutes, the cloud horse is clearly very high and very fast (in fact it takes 90 minutes in Low Earth Orbit at about 200 km).  When Yuri Gagarin made his orbit in 1962, there was great interest in what he could see. To be visible from space - or reputed to be - is a measure of cultural significance.
 
Neville's view is perhaps typical of a certain kind of colonial geography. He sees Indigenous people struggling against nature: the hordes of black men in the wild land, with the elephant their equal, about to fight back; the burning island with the 'natives' fleeing into the sea. In the cities, people dressed in bright colours are strange and their noisiness (bells, whistles) is part of their exoticism. By contrast, colonised Australia is ordered roads, farm houses, and cleared fields:
 
Neville clung on tightly, for he was so high above the earth that to fall off would mean the end of him. And far beneath him he saw the green fields and the white road, which now seemed like a mere thread.

He was high over a farm-house now: one that he used to see from the bald hill. He knew it by the tall pine-trees that grew round it ....Now he was far beyond that farm house and above an orchard, where he saw the fruit-trees standing in straight rows ....
 
It's a tame land, not a wild land.
 
As you know, I'm very interested in how people imagine experiences of being in space. (As in here and here).  I do think this is a rather lovely description of what it might be like to be in orbit. Neville and the cloud horse are not described as being in space, and much of what he sees you wouldn't even be able to discern from an aeroplane, let alone a satellite. Remember in this era very little was known of the upper atmosphere; and we have enough trouble defining where space begins today. Dennis is thinking specifically of aerial views ("Of course, now that aeroplanes have been invented, flying is not thought so wonderful as once it was"), but Neville's speed is in contradiction to this. And he clearly does make a complete orbit!
 
C.J. Dennis' charming illustration of a biplane. Gosh, those two are having fun!
 
 
The Sky Flower is an interesting touch. It's a talisman, as the Last Sunbeam explains to Neville (I found that such a fascinating word as a child. I had to ask my mother what it meant). A little later (1927-1928), Hugh Lofting also used flowers in space - when Dr Dolittle flies to the moon on the giant microgravity moth Jamara Bumblelily, oxygen-storing flowers are used as breathing devices.
 
So that's the story of the first Australian in space. Think of it next time you stand gazing into the sunset!
 

 



Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sei Shonagon: space goddess

When I was researching my submission of "Namatjira" for the name of a crater on Mercury (see this post), I had to go through the list of existing names. Features on the heavily-cratered planet are named after artists of all genres, but they have to be significant in some way and dead for a seemly amount of time.

I was very pleased to see that one of my all-time favourite writers, the 10th century Japanese courtier Sei Shonagon, had been craterised.

I first came across her famous Pillow Book in a second-hand bookshop when I was a teenager. I suppose I thought it might be some sort of saucy romance. I soon found out the error of my assumptions, and it has been one of my favourites ever since, a book I can read over and over without tiring of its pleasures. (I should mention that I'm old school about this and I like the Ivan Morris translation best).

Sei Shonagon was very erudite in an era when women weren't supposed to be. Only men were allowed to know Chinese, but Sei Shonagon managed to teach herself, and every now and then would astonish the male courtiers by some oblique reference to Chinese poetry. She had to be careful about it though, or risk being seen as unfeminine in a blue stocking kind of way.




She had a slightly wry, acerbic personality, and is sometimes a bit vain and shallow. One of the most appealing things about her is just how human she comes across as, over a thousand years ago and through translation from Japanese. It's a fascinating insight into another world, the Heian court of the 10th century, and it's worth looking up the notes as you're reading it to find out what everything means.

The most outstanding thing about her writing is the fine sense of observation. Colours, textures, nuances, little everyday incidents, are rendered profound by her framing of them. She writes lists of things that show the listicles of today's online press how things are really done. Reading her lists and her observations gives you a new appreciation of the world.

As I'm writing this, I turn behind me to look at the bookcase, and there she is, in the Penguin Classic edition I bought all those years ago for the princely sum of $1.30. It's full of bookmarks. This is what I read when I open one:

"Indeed, one's attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking".

A lesson for my teenage self indeed.