Tuesday, April 10, 2018

In Wild Air: Venus, Voyager, and more of my favourite obsessions

It's Monday <>, you are celestial.
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Many thanks to the amazing Heath Killen for permission to republish this. You can find more of Heath's work here
Alice Gorman is
In Wild Air
I’m an archaeologist who studies space exploration – the artefacts, the places, and the perspectives that lead to how we understand other worlds. Here I share some of my obsessions about space and time.

PHOTO: ASHTON CLARIDGE / FLINDERS UNIVERSITY
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CULTURE
The Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Austria in 1908, must be one of the most famous and least understood women in all of human history. She was made during the Ice Ages, between 30 000 and 28 000 years ago. The 11 cm high figurine is carved from limestone and was originally thickly coated in red ochre.

Without facial features, or even feet, she’s all sexuality with great breasts and belly and a well-defined vulva. A multitude of theories have swirled around her: mother goddess religions, matriarchal cultures, Palaeolithic pornography, prehistoric selfies, the power of post-menopausal women, cross-cultural communication.

But she’s also a massive Palaeolithic fuck-you to the ideas of female attractiveness that are often investigated by evolutionary psychologists. This branch of science often ends up justifying current human gender inequalities as some sort of evolutionary fitness.

I think this is why I like her so much. She feels a bit like a revolutionary. She defies easy explanations. She is unique and herself.
PEOPLE
Woman with Microscope
In 1977, two extraordinary spacecraft were launched on a mission to map the outer planets and then continue on to the space between the stars. Voyager 1 and 2 have become cultural icons, not only because they are the furthest extent of human culture and perhaps the most likely to make first contact with other sentient species, but also because of the Golden Records attached to them. The Records were the project of a team led by legendary science communicator Carl Sagan. They contain 90 minutes of music meant to represent the evolution of human culture, greetings spoken in many languages, and the natural sounds of life on Earth. 

There’s also 116 images. One in particular captures my imagination. A black woman in a lab coat bends over a microscope, tiered earrings falling gracefully from her pierced ears. She is simply called “Woman with Microscope”. All I know about her is that the earrings were the subject of some debate: would an alien recognise the concept of “jewellery”, or think they were some sort of technology, or even a name tag? 

She speaks to some very contemporary debates about women and other underrepresented minorities in science. Even today, little girls across the world are made to feel that they are not smart enough to be scientists, that space is the domain of men. The inclusion of a black female scientist on the Golden Records hence seems a bold statement about who gets to go to space. If only we knew her name.
PLACES
Voyage to Venus
Venus has always been my favourite planet. As a child it was part of my atlas of the night sky and I was drawn to its association with creativity, passion, the arts of love, and mystery. And what lay beneath Venus’ impenetrable clouds was a mystery. It seemed a likely candidate for life, and many imagined a vibrant oceanic world populated with winged angelic beings who sang, telepathic frogs, or even dinosaurs. The USSR Venera landing missions of the 1960s and 1970s dashed hopes of a sister world with new solar system companions. Venus, under the clouds, was a pressure-cooker of dull brown rocks and slow soupy winds.

Perhaps, most of all, my love for Venus was fostered by reading C.S. Lewis’ beautiful evocation of a new world, as a teenager in the 1970s. Published in 1943, Voyage to Venus (also known asPerelandra) describes a planet of floating islands and sensuous experiences of colour, taste, and touch that have philosophical dimensions. The reality of the Venusian surface did not deter me from falling in love with this vision. Every now and then I feel an urge to read Voyage to Venus again and relive the terror and desire of a world beyond human aesthetics.
PRODUCTS
Cable Ties
I am obsessed with cable ties, as an artefact and a technology. There’s probably a stash of them in most households; and they’re used for everything from boning corsets to securing suitcases and backpacks. They seem so simple – a plastic strap that you thread and tighten to hold something together, cheap to buy and easy to throw away – yet they’re connected to larger currents of technology and politics that unite the worlds of aerospace and domestic space in the 20th century.

Archaeologists are always looking at the ground. Once I would have sought the tell-tale angles of an Aboriginal stone tool; now I look for the characteristic t-shape of a severed cable tie lying in the streets. I’ve become shameless about picking them up from the ground and stashing them in corners of my bag, no matter who is looking askance at me.

Cable ties were invented in 1958 in the US, for wiring aircraft. They migrated to Australia when NASA established a series of satellite tracking stations here in the 1960s. Antennas and computers needed a lot of cables. From there they insinuated themselves into everyday life, to the degree that most people don’t really even think about them. For me, they’re the quintessential space age artefact. And they are in space – inside the International Space Station, for example. Look more closely next time you watch a video of life on the ISS. Once you’ve seen them, they can’t be unseen – you’ll start to notice them everywhere.
IDEAS
Two Ways of
Thinking About Space 
1957-1958 was a significant year, or to be more precise, a significant 18 months. It was the International Geophysical Year, a massive effort of international scientific co-operation to understand the Earth and space. During the IGY, the first three satellites were launched – Sputnik 1 in 1957, and Explorer 1 and Vanguard 1 in 1958.

And two books were published which explored the way we relate to space. Alexandre Koyré’s 1957 From Closed World to Infinite Universe is a work of jaw-dropping scholarship. It’s about the “replacement of the Aristotelian conception of space—a differentiated set of innerworldly places—by that of Euclidean geometry—an essentially infinite and homogenous extension—from now on considered as identical with the real space of the world”.

Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 The Poetics of Space was rather a phenomenology of inner or experienced space, from corners, to attics, to the interior of shells. For him, the vehicle of space travel was the daydream: “One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. …And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity”.

The mark of infinity is the geometry of our senses, the mathematics of our dreaming.
WILDISM
Microgravity
You don’t have to go into space to experience microgravity. All you have to do is seek out your nearest amusement park. There you’ll find rides which simulate higher gravity and free fall. Scientific drop towers are experimental facilities where scientists test materials and chemical processes in microgravity; it’s the same principle used in amusement parks. For high gravity, try a spinning rotor – this is like the centrifuge that astronauts use in training, but fortunately you won’t be required to perform mathematical calculations at the same time. I tried this at Vienna’s famous Prater park and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience, but those around me were clearly getting a kick out of it. Free fall, on the other hand, was exhilarating! Until zero-g parabolic flights and space tourism become affordable for regular Earth people, this may be the closest we can get to microgravity, even if only for a few seconds. Start your astronaut training now!
ELSEWHERE
The Archaeology of the International Space Station
The Archaeology of the International Space Station is a new project that I’m working on with Dr Justin Walsh. We want to investigate how a distinct space culture is created.

You can read more about this project and keep up to date with it on our blog.

Alice Gorman is In Wild Air
VOLUME III | EDITION XXXV


In Wild Air is a project by Heath Killen

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

I'm all burned out about space junk

My Twitter colleague @misosusanowa alerted me to this Devo song from Q. Are we not men? A. We are Devo. It was written in 1976, and released in 1978, the same year that a USSR Kosmos satellite re-entered over the forests of northern Canada, spewing nuclear fuel as it broke up. One year later, of course, the re-entry of Skylab caused a global sensation.




Well, she was walking all alone
Down the street in the alley
Her name was Sally
I never touched her, she never saw it

When she was hit by space junk
When she was smashed by space junk
When she was killed by space junk

'In New York, Miami beach
Heavy metal fell in Cuba
Angola, Saudi Arabia
On Christmas eve', said NORAD

A Soviet Sputnik hit Africa
India, Venezuela, in Texas, Kansas
It's falling fast, Peru too
It keeps coming, it keeps coming, it keeps coming

And now I'm mad about - space junk
I'm all burned out about - space junk
Walk and talk about - space junk
It smashed my baby's head - space junk
And now my Sally's dead - space junk


It's not a happy song, it has to be said. However, space junk hardly ever hits people or property, so poor Sally was extremely unlucky. Or perhaps she was unlucky in her choice of boyfriend, as there is a subtle undertone of domestic violence. The Cold War on the home front. 


Sunday, March 18, 2018

The cultural significance of the Vanguard 1 satellite - oldest human object in orbit

The Vanguard I satellite, launched successfully on March 17, 1958, is now the oldest manufactured object in orbit. It is no longer transmitting, but is in a highly stable LEO orbit with every prospect of remaining there for perhaps another 600 years. It is a physical testimony to the momentous period when humans first ventured beyond the atmosphere. Despite its failure to be first in the ‘Space Race’, Project Vanguard is acknowledged as ‘the progenitor of all American space exploration today’ [1]. For example, the Minitrack network, set up for Vanguard, became the backbone of the NASA Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Network used to track all the early generation of satellites [1].

Vanguard 1. (Image: NASA)

Unlike Sputnik 1 and Explorer 1, Vanguard was designed as a scientific satellite with no military 'taint'. It was launched using sounding rockets rather than missile technology, and originally was to have flown four experiments, including James Van Allen’s. In the spirit of international cooperation created by the InternationalGeophysical Year, the Vanguard team recruited a network of volunteers across the world to carry out visual tracking in ProjectMoonwatch [2]. As it turned out the Moonwatch volunteers first applied their training and equipment to pick up Sputnik’s 1 orbit.

Ultimately though, Vanguard represents the conflicting motivations and rationales for space exploration in the critical period of the 1950s, when the United Nations also first moved to set up the principles of the Outer Space Treaty. Although it was designed as a peaceful scientific satellite, it was also an ideological weapon, a 'visible display of technological prowess' aimed at maintaining the confidence of the free world and containing Communist expansion [1, 3]. Vanguard’s design and mission reflect the competing models of cooperation and confrontation in space, at a time when there were no rules, laws or guidelines to structure the human-orbital interaction [4]. It is now the only one of the early satellites to remain in LEO. Apart from significance at the aesthetic, historic and social levels, Vanguard 1 is also the only object that can tell us what happens to materials when exposed to the LEO environment for 60 years. 




This post is an excerpt from Gorman, A.C. 2005 The archaeology of orbital space. In Australian Space Science Conference 2005, pp 338-357. RMIT University, Melbourne

References

[1] Green, Constance McLaughlin and Lomask, Milton, Vanguard. A History. NASA SP-4204. The NASA Historical Series, Washington DC, 1970

[2] Chapman, Sydney IGY: Year of Discovery. The story of the International Geophysical Year. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1959


[3] Osgood, Kenneth A. 'Before Sputnik: National security and the formation of US outer space policy', in Roger D. Launius, John M. Logsdon and Robert W. Smith (eds) Reconsidering Sputnik. Forty years since the Soviet satellite. Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000, pp 197-229


[4] Gorman, A.C. and O’Leary, Beth Laura, 'An ideological vacuum: the Cold War in space', in John Schofield and Wayne Cocroft (eds) A fearsome heritage: diverse legacies of the Cold War, pp 73-92. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press




Saturday, March 17, 2018

Flaked glass bibliography: a resource for lithics studies

I put this together for my PhD years ago, and sent it to the lithic email discussion list. Until recently it was still available online but the site seems to have disappeared now. Fortunately I kept a copy. Here it is for anyone interested in flaked bottle glass.


Some people are astonished to find that my PhD was nothing to do with space. Just shows you it's never too late to change!





~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date:    Mon, 29 Jun 1998 12:15:21 +1000
From:    Alice Gorman 
Subject: flaked glass bibliography

Hi.  Here is the glass bibliography.  It's not exhaustive, and focuses on
Australian material, but I hope it will be of some use to those who
requested it.  As I said to John Dockall, it seems that the two principle
uses of glass flakes are woodworking, and surgery/body modification.  If
anyone has any references that I don't have, please let me know!

Alice

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Allen, J. and Jones, R.  1980  Oyster Cove:  Archaeological traces of the last Tasmanians and notes on the criteria for the authentication of flaked glass artefacts.  Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 114:225-233

Casamiquela, R.M.  1978  Tema Patagonicos de Interes Arqueologico:  III. La tecnica de la talla del vidrio.  Relaciones de la Sociedad Argentina de Antrpologia 12:213-223 (Buenos Aires)  (Contact between occidentals and ethnic groups of continental Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego - glass knapping)

Clark, Jeffrey T.  1981  Glass scrapers from Historic North America. Newsletter of Lithic Technology 10:31-34

Deal, M. and Hayden, B.  1987  The persistence of pre-Columbian lithic technology in the form of glass working.  In B.Hayden (ed)  Lithic Studies among the Contemporary Highland Maya.  235-331.  University of Arizona Press  (About glass scrapers at Dinamarquero)

Gallagher, J.P.  1977  Contemporary stone tools in Ethiopia:  Implications for archaeology.  Journal of Field Archaeology 3(4):407-414   (glass reference p 408)

Gojak, D.  1981  Flaked glass from Wybalenna, Flinders Island.  Unpublished manuscript

Hayden, B. and Nelson, M.  1981  The use of chipped lithic material in the contemporary Maya highlands. American Antiquity 46(4):885-898  (Replacement of obsidian with bottle glass)

Holmes, W.H.  1919  The Lithic Industries.  Handbook of Aboriginal American Antiquities Part I  Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 60, Washington

Jackson, D.  1991  Raspadores de vidrio en Dinamarquera:  reflejo de una encrucijada cultural.  Anales del Instito de la Patagonia 20:57-67.  Serie Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Magallanes, Punta Arenas.

Jackson, D.  1991  Los instrumentos de vidrio de Cuarta Chorillo, Coasta de Bahia Santiago, Estrecho de Magallanes.  Anales del Instito de la Patagonia 20:69-74.  Serie Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Magallanes, Punta Arenas.

Knudson, R.  1979  Inference and imposition in lithic analysis.  In Brian Hayden (ed)  Lithic Use-Wear Analysis  Academic Press, New York pp 269-281 (Spurious glass artefacts from the Homestead site)

McCary, B.C.  1962  Artifacts of glass made by the Virginia Indians. Bulletin, the Archaeological Society of Virginia 16(4):59-61

Man, E.H.  1932  On the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands. Second Edition.  Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London

Martinic, M. y Prieto. A  1986  Dinamarquero, Encrucijada de Rutas Indigenas.  Anales del Instito de la Patagonia 16:53-83.  Serie Ciencias Sociales, Punta Arenas.  (Ethnographic description of glass scraper knapping.)

Mitchell, S.R.  1949  Stone-Age craftsmen:  Stone tools and camping places of the Australian Aborigines.  Tait Book Co Pty Ltd, Melbourne  (Kimberley points)

Mulvaney, D.J.  1969  The prehistory of Australia.  Thames and Hudson, London

Neil, Wilfrid T.  1977  Knapping in Florida during the historic period. Florida Anthropologist 30(1):14-17

Plomley, N.J.B.  1966  Friendly Mission:  The Tasmanian journals and papers of George Augustus Robinson 1829-1834.  Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Hobart  (Use of glass flakes for surgery; other uses and use by women)

Poplin, Eric C.  1986  Expedient technology in European North America: Implications from an Alternative Use of Glass by Historic Period Populations.  Unpublished PhD Thesis, Unversity of Calgary, Alberta

Runnels, C.  1975  A note on glass implements from Greece.  Newsletter of Lithic Technology IV(3):29-30

Runnels, C.  1976  More on glass implements from Greece.  Newsletter of Lithic Technology IV(3):27-31

Spencer, Sir Baldwin  1928  Wanderings in Wild Australia.  Macmillan and Co Ltd, London (Flaked glass & porcelain on the Overland Telegraph)

Tindale, N.  1941  A Tasmanian stone implement made from bottle glass. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania pp 1-3

Tindale, N.  1937  Tasmanian Aborigines on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.  Records of the South Australian Museum 6:29-37 (Glass artefacts)

Akerman, Kim  1978  Notes on the Kimberley stone-tipped spear focusing on the point hafting mechanism.  Mankind 11(4):486-489 
Allen, J.  1969  Archaeology and the History of Port Essington (Northern Territory)  Unpublished PhD Thesis, RSPaS, ANU, Canberra

Allen, J.  1973  The archaeology of nineteenth century British imperialism: An Australian case study.  World Archaeology 5:44-59

Anderson, June  1981  Survey for Aboriginal Sites in the North Dandalup and Little Dandalup Dam Project Areas, Western Australia  Report to the Metropolitan Water Supply Sewerage and Drainage Board, Perth

Anderson, June  1984  Between Plateau and Plain.  Flexible Responses to Varied Environments in Southwestern Australia  Occasional Papers in Prehistory 4  Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, ANU, Canberra

Backhouse, J.  1843  A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies London p 103, p 433

Balfour, H.  1903  On the method employed by the natives of N.W. Australia in the manufacture of glass spearheads.  Man 3(35):65

Berndt, R.M.  and C.H.  1954  Arnhem Land  Melbourne

Birmingham, J.  1976  The archaeological contribution to nineteenth century history:  Some Australian case studies.  World Archaeology 7:314

Edge-Partington, J.  1915  Obituary, Norman H. Hardy, d. January 10. 1914. Man: 9-10

Elkin, A. P.  1948  Pressure Flaking in the Northern Kimberley, Australia. Man 130 (Kimberley points)

Flood, J.M.  1970  A point assemblage from the Northern Territory Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania V(1):27-52

Gould, Richard A.  1969  Yiwara:  Foragers of the Australian Desert. Collins, London and Sydney

Gould, Richard A.  1971  The lithic assemblages of the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia.  American Antiquity 36:149-169

Harrison, Rodney  1996  It's the way it shatters that matters.  An analysis of the technology and variability of Aboriginal glass artefacts in the Shark Bay and Swan regions of Western Australia.  Unpublished B.A, Hons Thesis, University of Western Australia.

Hayden, Brian  1979  Palaeolithic Reflections.  Lithic Technology and Ethnographic Excavation Among the Australian Aborigines  Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (Canberra) and Humanities Press Inc (New Jersey)

Jones, R.  1971  Rocky Cape and the problem of Tasmanians.  Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Sydney.  (Summary of uses of glass)

Knowles, Sir Francis H.S. Bart  1953  Stone-Worker's Progress:  A study of stone implements in the Pitt Rivers Museum  Occasional Paper on Technology 6  T.K. Penniman and B.M. Blackwood (eds)  Oxford University Press, Oxford


Lewis, Shelagh  1977  Australian Aboriginal Material in Manchester Museum Manchester Museum Publication No NS 5. 77  Manchester

Love, J. R. B.  1936  Stone Age Bushmen of Today  London

Macknight, C.C.  1970  The Macassans - study of the early trepang industry along the Northern Territory coast.  PhD, RSPaS, ANU

Macknight, C.C.  1972  Macassans and Aborigines.  Oceania 42:283-321

McBryde, Isabel  1982  Coast and Estuary.  Archaeological Investigations on the North Coast of New South Wales at Wombah and Schnapper Point  with contributions by V.M Campbell, K.H. Lane, K. McQueen and N.A. Wakefield. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Canberra  (possible glass scrapers)

McCarthy, F.D.  and Davidson, F.A.  1943  The Elouera industry at Singleton, Hunter Valley, NSW.  Records of the Australian Museum (2):226-227

McCarthy, F.D. and F.M. Setsler  1960  The archaeology of Arnhem Land Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land Volume 2,  Melbourne pp220-223  (Macassans)

McCourt, Tom  1975  Aboriginal Artefacts.  Rigby, Adelaide

Mulvaney, D.J.  1966  Beche-de-mer, Aborigines and Australian history. Crosbie Memorial Lecture.  Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 79(2):449-457

Searcey, A.  1907  In Australian Tropics  London

Simpson, Colin  1951  Adam in Ochre  Angus and Robertson, Sydney

Spencer, Sir Baldwin  1928  Wanderings in Wild Australia.  Macmillan and Co Ltd, London (Flaked glass & porcelain on the Overland Telegraph)

Tindale, N.  1925-8  Natives of Groote Eylandt and the West Coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.  Records of the South Australian Museum III:61-134

Westlake, E.  n.d  Tasmanian field fournals of E. Westlake  Unpublished manuscript in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.  (Copy in AIAS Library, Canberra)  Comments by Mrs Hughes
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Alice C. Gorman Department of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology (02) 67 73 2306 e-mail: agorman@metz.une.edu.au
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



Thursday, March 15, 2018

In the future, women still do all the cooking

Nothing annoys me quite so much as science fiction writers who can imagine almost any aspect of human existence transformed, and yet still have women stuck in the bloody kitchen.

Sometimes it's not even overt. The biases and limitations of a writer emerge in reading between the lines.

Let me show you some examples from a book I'm reading at the moment. (Which I'm enjoying, I should add, apart from this).

The two main characters are addressed as 'Miss G' and her boyfriend 'Mr M', by other characters in the book. So her age, marital status and sexual history are still considered relevant in this future society on another planet, while he is simply an autonomous male adult. Business as usual.

Her mother is 'Mrs G', implying that she has changed her name on marriage. She works full-time; her husband works off-world. Mr M spends a lot of time at her place and she feeds him. Why? Because his mother 'isn't around' and his dad is a 'Bad cook. Worse jokes. You know. A dad'.

A dad who lets another woman take care of his son, because dads don't do kitchens and young men couldn't possibly fend for themselves. Please.

Lift your game, science fiction writers.



Saturday, March 10, 2018

An anatomy of street harassment

This is something that happened to me a couple of years ago, and it's absolutely text book. I'm writing about it as men sometimes ask how women tell the difference between someone who's interested in them, and someone who's harassing them. So I'm going to tell this story to elucidate some of the finer points. I'd be very surprised if every female reader didn't immediately recognise this experience.....

It starts in the early evening on a university campus, where I've been attending a conference. I'm waiting at the bus stop, by myself, in order to go into the city for the conference dinner. I've got a book to help pass the time. But it's starting to get dark, and I'm a little unsure about how to get to my destination. 

A man walks into the bus shelter.

WATCHPOINT
Do I acknowledge his presence? Do I keep my head in my book and pretend he's not there?

DECISION
Acknowledge. It's not that dark, he's most likely a university student, there's no reason not to be friendly.

ACTION
'Good evening!' he says. 'Hello!' I say, and return to my book. I've been polite to a fellow traveler, and the interaction could end here.

But he keeps talking. Asks me if I'm a student here too, what I'm studying. I'm at a conference, I tell him, and explain a bit about it. He tells me about his thesis. All very pleasant and light-hearted. I would actually be rather reading my book, this is a little intrusive into personal time and space, but hey, why not? Sometimes you meet nice people in random places, and it's no big deal after all. Ten minutes of my time to learn about someone else's life. He also advises me not to catch the bus the online journey planner recommended; his local knowledge is useful here. Catch the next bus, he says, it's a more direct route to the city.

The bus arrives.

WATCHPOINT
This is also the bus he is catching. Do we sit together to continue the conversation or not? Does he expect me to? Do I owe him more conversation for telling me about the bus?

DECISION
No. We have had a pleasant conversation already. I have been in too many of these situations before, and feel that this is the logical disengagement point. I will sit in a different part of the bus, if I can.

ACTION
He boards the bus, sits halfway down. I sit near the front and continue to read my book. Someone boards and sits beside me. Excellent, no spare seat.

So we travel on. It's dark by now. As we draw closer to the city, the person sitting next to me gets off. I'm aware that he has seen this and I'm now exposed again. Sure enough, he comes up and says, 'Do you mind if I sit with you?'

WATCHPOINT
OK. This is where I really know where this is going. I'm 50 years old. I can say no. But it seems ungrateful. After all, he did help give me advice about which bus to catch. On the other hand, I know this script all too well.

DECISION
It's another ten minutes of conversation. He's pleasant enough. It would feel mean to say no. I'll make leaving the bus the definitive cut-off.

ACTION
'Sure', I say to him.

So we chat away, and finally we're in the city. We both get off the bus. 'Well', I say, 'it was lovely to meet you, good luck with your thesis, and have a great evening'. 'Oh', he says, 'are you sure you know how to get to your conference dinner? I could walk you'. 'No, really, it's fine. I have my phone and I'm perfectly fine by myself. Thank you though, it's very kind of you to offer'. But he doesn't give up. We go over this point a number of times, he's got plenty of time, he's very happy to walk with me, no I'm fine, how kind, but no, I don't need him to walk me, I'm sure he's keen to get home, no really he has heaps of time, he doesn't mind, it's on his way home anyway.

WATCHPOINT
Short of being even blunter, there is no way out of this impasse.

DECISION
I don't really want to be brutal, even though I know what the consequences are likely to be. But perhaps I'm wrong. He may just be a kind person. And what if I do get lost in the dark streets?

ACTION
'OK', I say, 'if you're sure it's not out of your way'.

WARNING WARNING WARNING

It's not that I feel in any physical danger from this person, although one can never rule it out. I'd also feel differently if I was on my way home, and he would find out where I lived. I'm just going to a function centre. But I'm a few too many steps down the decision tree now. All I've done is postpone the moment where I have to shut it down. I've been soft and cowardly in order to avoid the horrible experience of feeling you've been mean to someone. The one thing you can't do, which you've been trained not to do since girlhood, is hurt their feelings. It's really hard to overcome, especially if you're a young woman.

So we walk and chat. He tries on a few compliments. 'I'm sure you're a great teacher'. Things like that. I respond non-committally, trying to give him no encouragement. What else can I do? Soon we're in the street where the function centre is, and I can see where I need to go. 'OK', I say, 'there it is over there. Thank you so much, it was lovely to meet you, I don't want to hold you up any more'.  'No problems', he says. 'What are you doing tomorrow? Would you have time to meet for a coffee?'. 

WATCHPOINT
This is a polite request, and there's no harm in meeting someone for a coffee, is there? But will he interpret it as a green light to press for more? Of course he will - he hasn't paid attention to a single 'no' I have given him so far.

DECISION
I don't want to have coffee with him, and moreover, I simply don't have time to skive off from a professional conference to meet with a stranger. If I had this time to spare, I'd rather spend it with my Canberra friends.

ACTION
'I'm afraid not', I tell him, 'the conference starts at 8.30 am, and I'm flying out directly after. I simply won't have time'. 

But he won't leave this one. He asks again. I say no. He asks again. This is getting tedious. I'm really starting to be annoyed.

WARNING WARNING WARNING

And here I make the biggest mistake of all. Even as I did it, my brain was screaming WHAT ARE YOU DOING. I think I wanted to make clear that I was a professional, that we were simply two people in the academic world talking about academic things, and to make an obvious break that will allow me to walk away.

I give him my card. I say 'If you're ever in Adelaide, look me up'. Then I realise, holy shit, my mobile phone number is on the card.

By now a few other conference delegates I recognise are on the street, converging on the door. One of them, Andy, looks at me quizzically; very perceptively, he has sensed the vibe that I'm not comfortable (this, believe me, is rare). I use the look to escape, and join Andy thankfully at the door of the venue. I wave goodbye to my new 'friend', and finally, at last, he walks away. It's hard not to think that this is because I am now with another man and so no longer fair game.

So, you might think, nothing happened here. The man was not offensive, I did not feel in actual danger at any point. It was just annoying. What's the big deal?

What the big deal is, is that he forced me to manage the situation. At every point along the way, I had to judge his intentions and decide when to pull the pin. And yet at no time did he do anything overt enough for me to call it out. Taken individually, each single watchpoint was insignificant. But at every point where I did not shut him down, he took it as tacit permission to continue. 

I had to be responsible for his actions. I had to assess them and make decisions about what to do. And you know what, it's fucking exhausting. It's exhausting playing cat and mouse, it's exhausting managing someone else's shit. Instead of a straightforward bus trip into town, I spent 45 minutes dealing with this bloke. I made rookie mistakes, all with the desire of not hurting his feelings. And the consequences were exactly what I knew they would be.

That night, after the conference dinner, he rang my mobile.

I received many phone calls and texts over the next weeks. Mostly I didn't respond. Once I did answer and told him I was very busy. A second time I was just fed up with it. I told him that it had been nice to meet him, that I was grateful for his assistance in my journey, but that I didn't want to talk to him. Nothing personal, perhaps I'd get in touch if I was in that city again.

More calls. I didn't respond.

They've stopped now, thank heavens.

He didn't respect me reading my book at the bus stop, sitting by myself on the bus, refusing his offer to walk me, telling him I didn't want to talk. Oh, he's done this before, and probably wondered why women won't talk to him because he's a 'nice guy'.




Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Pluto pom-pom parameter

This is the number which you never knew you needed until now.

Pluto mass = 1.30900 x 10^22 kg

200 g ball of wool (acrylic)

10-12 pom poms per 106 yards

10 cm diameter

3 ply wool
106 yards
100 g = 10 pom poms
1 kg = 1000 g = 100 pom poms

Number of pom poms in Pluto = 1.30900 x 10^22 x 100 (for each kg)

= 130.900 x 10^22

Pluto. Image courtesy of NASA


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Historic images of the Earth from space - how the view from the Tesla Roadster compares.

On February 6th 2018, Elon Musk launched his own personal midnight cherry Tesla Roadster into space on a test Falcon Heavy rocket. The car went sailing away from Earth with a mannequin in a spacesuit, a copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series on a disc, a Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy Don't Panic sign, and a plaque engraved with 6000 names of SpaceX employees. There may have been some other things, but finding a reliable source is harder than you'd think.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I want to think about something else - some of the iconic, world-changing images of the Earth from outside, and the addition of this new one seen from the front seat of a car.

Here they are:

Apollo 8, 1968

Image credit: NASA


Apollo 17, 1972

Image credit: NASA

International Space Station, 2011



The Cupola on the ISS, 2014

Image credit: NASA

Tesla Roadster, 2018

Image credit: SpaceX

This is something that I'll have to think a lot more about, but here are a few initial impressions. 

Early conceptualisations of what the Earth looked like from outside tended to be greyscale: it was assumed that the blue sky would only appear so from the surface of the Earth (due to Rayleigh scattering). The blueness of the Earth was a surprise that came with the first human spaceflight missions. It was translated into the blue marble, and the pale blue dot, in a colour scheme including white, black, and muted tones. 

Another factor is the presence or absence of the photographer. In the Apollo 8 and 17 images, there's no hint of them. Their absence accentuates a separation of the natural and cultural, setting the human observers apart from the world they're capturing on film. In the case of the whole ISS, the image is taken by a service vessel approaching or departing. We still don't see the photographer.

So many images of the ISS show the space station in relation to the partially curved Earth. Space is closer to us, with people living just a few hundred kilometres above our heads. Then we get the astronaut's eye view, as if we are telepresencing from inside their bodies. These shots are often taken from the Cupola, and often there are people in them. It's a more intimate relationship to the Earth, but it's always looking down. We have a more integrated view of the interconnectedness of Earth and space.

So what about the Tesla Roadster? The addition of the red colour against the blue and white is striking. The effect is almost cartoon-like. 

The other big contrast is how dominant the human presence is - and it's not even human! The Earth is only a backdrop: we're meant to focus on the car in the foreground. I don't know where the camera filming was (this is a still from the video), but we have both a hidden observer and a portrait of the Starman. (We can't see the rocket body which is apparently still attached).

While the other images are related to sensibilities of the Earth's fragility, environmental awareness, the erasure of national borders and the insignificance of Earthly conflicts and struggles (aspects of the Overview Effect), I don't think this is what is going on here.

The faceless driver is not even looking at the Earth. They're focused on leaving. 

I think this is a radical paradigm shift. I don't fully understand what it means yet, but I'm pretty sure others are going to start analysing this as we get further away from the event.