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.
Alice Gorman is In Wild Air
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.
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.
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 as Perelandra) 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.
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.
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.
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!