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Pre-Summer Solstice in the UK July 6, 2009

Posted by ASTRO Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO) , trackback Bookmark and Share

Cosmologies, Institute for Astronomy, and Lampeter
by Jarita Holbrook
June 19, 2009
Bristol, UK

June 6 I gave another lecture on the results of my survey project “The Sky in Our Lives”. Things were a bit tense, because my student Darlene Villicana had still not arrived from the United States and she was scheduled to present her 10 minute film on our research last year at the conference. Backing up – Location: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute, Bath, UK. Event: the annual conference of the Sofia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, Topic: “Cosmologies”.

From my last blog, I was in Garching, traveled in the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics car to the Munich airport and flew to Gatwick Airport in the United Kingdom. There we picked up a rental car and driving on the left side of the road headed to Bath for the “Cosmologies” conference. We managed to get to Bath without taking any wrong turns and only had a problem locating our Bed & Breakfast where we were staying. We arrived too late to catch the Friday evening lecture at the Bath Royal Institute which was on the astronomical interests of the Lunar Society, a group of scientists that existed in mid to late 1700s. Though I knocked on the door at 8:15 pm, the talk had begun at 7:30 and no one answered the door.

The weekend conference included scientists I knew from the Societe Europeene pour l’Astronomie dans Culture (SEAC) Nick Campion who runs the Sofia Centre which is at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and Lionel Sims, a professor at the University of East London, and several students. For June 2010, I have been working with Nick Campion of Lampter University and Clive Ruggles of Leicester University to create the first Cultural Astronomy Field School which will take place in the United Kingdom. As part of that field school, I have had to do a lot of reading on the local Druid and Pagan communities. I was thrilled to see two of the experts were giving presentations at the conference: Ronald Hutton of Bristol University and Jenny Blain of Sheffield Hallam University.

What do people talk about at a cultural astronomy conference focused on cosmologies? The presentations included data from a variety of sources: archaeological data, textual data, internet data, ethnographic data, and survey data. The time period spanned from the Neolithic with Stonehenge to today looking at the cosmology of the internet. Some of the projects were completed and others were works in progress.

What did I present? I mentioned my survey project in my last blog. The goal of the survey is to on the one hand learn what is common basic sky knowledge and sky watching behaviors in the United States, and on the other hand to learn about interesting sub-populations that have something special about their sky knowledge. Since this is a project grounded in statistics, averages are skewed by ‘outliers’. The potential outliers in my survey population are astronomers, amateur astronomers, and astrologers. So, there is a question on the survey for them to identify themselves as such so that they can be handled accordingly in the statistics. At the Cosmologies conference I presented some of the data specifically on the outliers and I encouraged discussion of how the groups compared to each other and possible interpretations. Since, the presentation included only simple statistics I will not give details of my results. Anyway, I was too successful to the point of having to silence the audience – discussion was very lively! Many people agreed to take the survey and I collected about 15 completed surveys by the end of the second day of the conference.

Also in preparation for the 2010 Cultural Astronomy Field School, I visit a certain stone circle every June 21st. In 2008 I took two student research assistants with me, both UA Anthropology majors: Darlene Villicana and Sunny Albright. Darlene actually films many of the June 21st events which she edited into a 10 minute film for the conference. I had viewed an earlier version of the film with my Anthropology of Astronomy class in the spring and we had decided to approach my colleague Drexel Woodson, also in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at UA, to do the narration. He agreed, but I had yet to see the completed film. Half an hour after my talk, in walked Darlene. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Her flight had been delayed four hours, she had no place to stay, but she was in the UK until Monday morning. She did not have enough funds to stay longer.

During the break I prepped her for her presentation. The best thing I said to her was that the audience would want to know why she made the film and who was her intended audience. Sure enough, even though she included this information during her introduction, it was asked again during the Q & A. The film looked and sounded very good, limited only by her cheap filming equipment and the fact that it was raining when she shot the film. It was warmly received and I was the very proud professor. It is always a great thing to have given a presentation at an international conference while still an undergraduate. I hoped that doing so will help Darlene achieve her goal of going to graduate school to study visual anthropology.

Where did Darlene sleep? It is impossible to find housing in Bath on the weekend. We knew several people from attending this same conference in 2008, and a couple of folks graciously offered for her to sleep on their couches as only a college student could do. She was well taken care of and I was glad she didn’t have to sleep in the airport.

On to Cambridge, my husband and I drove to Cambridge where we visited the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. The year before we had stayed in a three bedroom flat at Churchill College, this year we asked to stay in town. We had a two bedroom townhouse on Albert Street. We were visitors of the director, Robert Kennicutt, who I had met at a conference when I was still working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center before I went back to school to get my Ph.D.. Before moving to Cambridge, Rob had been a professor for many years at the University of Arizona in my husband’s department, astronomy.

Cambridge has a physics department with astronomers, the Institute for Astronomy (IoA), and the Kavli Institute for Cosmology which is under construction. The Kavli building is supposed to be completed in July. Once completed, the many of the astronomers from the physics department will relocate to IoA or Kavli. IoA and Kavli are on the grounds of the old observatory, whereas the department of mathematics and theoretical physics is located on the other side of town. The observatory dates from a time when observatories were not placed on the top of a hill or mountain. It is on flat ground just outside of town to the west, on Madingley Road.

In 2008, several of the astronomers and students had completed surveys for my project and on June 10th, as will the other two talks, I presented my preliminary findings. However, unlike at MPE, I included a short introduction of cultural astronomy and cultural astronomy research methods. The Q & A was very different from MPE as a result. The questions focused on asking questions about the other outlier communities. Several people took the survey afterward but felt funny about it, since they had seen some of the early results. I told them to make a comment directly on the survey if they felt that their answer was influenced by what they had seen.

The Institute for Astronomy began taking Ph.D. students during the last decade, so their program is fairly new. Like other programs in Europe, no coursework is required but your Ph.D. project has to be well-developed and tested by the end of your first year. Like other European Ph.D.s in Astronomy, it is pretty normal to complete it in three years. Three years and no classes! I don’t know why more USA students don’t go to Europe to do their Ph.D.s in astronomy….probably the tuition. In Germany, graduate school was free until the last decade, but in the UK there has always been tuition. As a foreigner the cost is higher than for a European Union member. Nonetheless, aspiring astronomy students should consider this accelerated path to a Ph.D..

In preparation of the June 21st activities, I am now in Bristol near the Neolithic Stone Circles. While in Bath a few weeks ago, I took my husband to Avebury for the first time. Avebury is much larger than Stonehenge and has a village in the center of it. My husband was suitably impressed. On the 21st, both Stonehenge and Avebury have huge crowds, too big to take a group of students. Thus, we chose to study a less well known circle that attracts a manageable number of people. The circle will remain a mystery since studying it will be the final exam for the 2010 field school. The UK has hundreds of Neolithic standing stone sites that have been studying by archaeoastronomers: see the works of Clive Ruggles, Alexander Thom, William Stukeley, and Gerald Hawkins. I would say that only Ruggles’ work is without controversy, but I am no expert on these sites. I just listen to the complaints of the other archaeoastronomers.

At the University of Arizona I have been working to establish a graduate minor in Cultural Astronomy. I have been meeting with the directors of other cultural astronomy programs for several years to learn how they did it, what their goals are, etc., and to get advice and suggestions for UA. As a result, I have developed close ties with the programs in the UK and think of these in some ways as our sister programs though the core focus of each program is different. The Sofia Centre at the University of Wales, Lampeter, studies from a historical and sometimes contemporary perspective the more esoteric, divinatory, and magical aspects of the relationship between humans and the sky. The Sofia Centre has been in Lampeter for two years and I had never visited their campus. June 18th, I rode with the director, Nick Campion, from Bristol to Lampeter – three hours on small roads. The environment was rural farmlands, rolling hills, and small villages. The part of Wales that I traveled through seems very agricultural but not in the big “agro-business” sense. Upon arriving in Lampeter, I immediately spotted the Co-Op! The source of organic foods and vegetarian fare. There was a second health food store in town, too. The west of the UK is Cider country – alcoholic cider. I was able to purchase couple of bottles of organic cider made right there in Lampeter!

We visited the Anthropology & Archaeology Department under which is the Sofia Centre. The professors did research all over the world and as a group they were very friendly and welcoming. Lampeter is a liberal arts college without much physical science, so perhaps would not be of interest to NSBP members. However, they are partnering with UA for the 2010 Cultural Astronomy field school.

The next couple of days, I will be preparing for the June 21st summer solstice at the mystery stone circle.

Dr. Jarita Holbrook is a research scientist in cultural astronomy at the University of Arizona. She received her undergraduate degree in physics from Caltech and the Ph.D. degree in astronomy from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She was a postdoctoral research scholar in history of science at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She is the co-editor or the recently published volume, African Cultural Astronomy.

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