“Crabs will inherit the Earth”

How can we see space differently?
Astronomer Dr Tana Joseph answers

Three people, one big question. In this edition: astro science stars.


Dr Tana Joseph‘s 3-minute noodles

“Everyone always gets nervous when I talk about exploding stars, but our sun is not going to explode. It’s not going to change for about five billion years. The double stars I study are a special kind, in that one of them is either a black hole or neutron star, which is what you get when massive stars explode.

To understand how the universe works, there’s all these different kinds of light that you have to put together. Stars in extreme physical conditions emit the same kind of X-rays that look at your bones in the hospital. And that’s what I look into.

My double stars give off all kinds of light, from high energy X-rays to low energy radio waves, optical light (like we see with our eyes), and infrared. If you like old school sci-fi movies, Predator from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies sees in infrared. There’s lots of different ways to use light, whether it’s on Earth or in space – from sci fi, to medicine, to space, to chemistry.

I believe that science is for everyone. That includes people who don’t have formal science training out in the world, but also people who are inside and are having a hard time because of the old school traditional ways. People who have been historically excluded – People of Colour, women, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds – all those barriers that go into becoming a scientist or engaging with science.

Language shapes your perception of reality. We say space is mostly ’empty’. There’s this parallel that we’re making with colonial attitudes, especially with words that we used to use to justify colonising places that had Indigenous people there. And we’re using that exact mindset and language to perpetuate that into space. We talk about colonising Mars, which comes up all the time.

We have to see ourselves as part of this ecosystem, and not conquerors of the solar system. There’s this exploitative and extractive mindset about wanting to mine asteroids. Look at what mines have done on our planet. We are taking all of this and trying to export it to the rest of the universe. And this is very dangerous. I think we are, unfortunately, a long way from getting the people right at the top to see it like that. 

We’re still saying things like ‘manned spacecraft.’ No, it’s ‘crewed spacecraft.’

So who’s getting to go to space? The three main people right now are rich white men: Musk, Bezos and Branson. If the three of them succeed, then that’s just going to perpetuate the problems that we have on Earth and make it some other planet’s problem

We are all taught the Greek names for constellations. In South Africa, where I’m from, everything is flipped upside down, and we can’t even see half the stuff that you can see. So why are we being told about Cassiopeia and Orion, when Southern Africa has their own rich star lore that makes sense and puts it into context to where you are using the stars as a calendar. And of course, the native peoples and first peoples of the Americas have their own cosmology and origin stories, as do the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and all other Indigenous people in all places in the world.

I try to do science communication in both English and Afrikaans. There are movements in South Africa, and in other places as well, where people are not only reigniting their interest and spreading awareness about the local star lores and the cultural ways of knowing that involve astronomy and the night sky, but doing it in their Indigenous languages.

Making science accessible to everyone is making it a normalised thing that you speak in Zulu, or Tonga, or whatever your Indigenous language is. Then it makes it more real and more personal to you. That’s again, the importance of language and of Indigenous ways of knowing as a way to connect us all. We all as a people, no matter where you are, have some concept of looking into the sky and wondering about what’s out there.

We all know what happened to the dinosaurs, we need to be more humble and more open to learning. We should approach space and the rest of the universe with supreme humility and with a decentred concept of where we are. We tend to think that human beings are the end point of evolution on this planet.

milky way

Humility might not save us, we might still get smacked out of the sky by a comet or something, but we owe it to ourselves to go into this with more open minds and less rigid ways of thinking, if we’re going to really appreciate what’s out there. The wonders of the universe are slowly being revealed to us and a lot of it might go unnoticed if we’re looking in very narrow ways.

It comes back to the concept of light. If you only look in one kind of light, you miss so many other things. And if only certain kinds of people are allowed to go into space, or only certain languages are used, we’re going to miss out on so much.”

Time’s up!

What’s so good about this?

Space is big. Sometimes it’s hard to get our heads around. But the ideas that these three astro stars have not only help us understand our universe and where we’ve come from, they’re also forging new paths to make science more inclusive. We shouldn’t settle for a narrow idea of what a scientist is, and we can affect that change by making changes outside science labs. These scientists are showing us not only how to see the universe differently, but how to see humankind differently. Space isn’t just for astronomers. It’s for everyone looking into the night sky.

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

Meet the writer

When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.

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