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Historian of Science, The Solstice, Hubble’s Diverse Universe July 7, 2009

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

by Jarita C. Holbrook

While visiting Cardiff, I met Dr. Seymour Mauskopf who was visiting a mutual friend. Dr. Mauskopf is a historian of science at Duke University. We had a discussion of the program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Duke. It is a certificate program and a graduate concentration. It is similar to how I am trying to set up the program in Cultural Astronomy at the University of Arizona. I got the feeling that Dr. Mauskopf now thinks that at some point Duke should have built this up to a full graduate degree program. I suggested that to build a program you had to have someone willing to see it through from start to finish including getting funding for students and building a viable network where graduating students can get postdocs. I used the term “empire builder”. He felt that such a person has yet to join their faculty.

Our conversation got me thinking about what a postdoc in cultural astronomy could be. If I keep my current model of graduate students having a traditional major and a minor in cultural astronomy, then they can get a postdoc in their major as long as their work fits in with the current intellectual debates. If they focus only on cultural astronomy, people in their field may not see their work as relevant. Unlike in the physical sciences, the goal of the first postdoc is to transform the dissertation into a publishable book. Because my dissertation is in astronomy & astrophysics, when I began my first postdoc at UCLA I had to start with doing research before even considering writing a book. As a result, I had a rather long postdoc and finished writing the book in 2004 after being a professor for two years. However, the book has still not been published – this is my book on navigation by the stars. Meanwhile, I have begun several other projects and am actively collecting data while my book bounces from publisher to publisher looking for a home. I had hoped to have a second book completed on new research by this point of my career, but it hasn’t gone as smoothly as I expected. However, African Cultural Astronomy – my unexpected book – is quite an achievement which I am proud of: It is an edited volume that is also a textbook written for undergraduates and available from Springer. Also unlike in the physical sciences, postdocs are expected to teach at least one class per year. And, a postdoc can be taken at any time even after getting tenure.

More on postdocs, I had several conversations with postdocs in astronomy in Leiden, Garching, and Cambridge. The mood was somber. Because of the economic crisis worldwide, most academic astronomy positions have been frozen or withdrawn. The hiring freezes are into the foreseeable future, so those astronomers starting postdocs are facing the real possibility of having to do three or more postdocs before applying for an academic or even any kind of permanent position. They will have to adopt a holding pattern and go into survival mode. This is the time for NSF to increase its support of postdoctoral fellows especially of women and minorities if they want them to remain in astronomy. Women and minorities are disproportionately impacted during cut backs and lay offs in general, but every effort should be made to keep this from happening to our fledgeling astronomers. If NSF was really farsighted they could set up joint professorships where NSF will pay their salary for three years with the guarantee that the University will pay the last three years which will get people through to tenure and overall help universities at the very least replace retiring professors. Attaching women and minorities to it would gently force astronomy departments to finally diversify. OK, maybe not so gentle.

The solstice 2009 went well. I witnessed several rituals and spoke to many people about the 2010 Cultural Astronomy Field School which will take place June 2010. It looks like in 2010 there will be a large group at dawn, and Morris dancing at sunset. I learned that a group does rituals at midnight on the solstice (the night before), too. During the day, the rituals included smaller groups compared to the dawn activities. In general, those folks that I spoke to about having students witness their rituals in 2010 were enthusiastic. I was surprised at how amenable people were to the idea considering that they choose to do rituals at this much smaller and less well know stone circle rather than at Avebury and Stonehenge. It looks like all the elements of the 2010 Cultural Astronomy Field School are in place, it is time to set a price and start advertising!

I returned to the USA via San Francisco in the middle of the week, and drove via Los Angeles back to Tucson. This morning my husband and I met with Lisa Boags, the head of Boags Productions. Hubble’s Diverse Universe is the name of our film on African American and Hispanic American astronomers funded by a NASA Education and Public Outreach grant. Everyone in the film is a member of NSBP and NSHP. We chose to work with Boags Productions because they did a fantastic documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen. They are doing a great job on our film which will premiere on July 11 & 12th at the Museum of African American Technology in Oakland, CA. Lisa Boags, George Carruthers, and I will be available for Q & A after the viewing the film. This morning we went over the science section of the film which is 15 minutes of the 45 minutes. We suggested a few more HST images and animations to include. The film is one of the IYA2009 projects for the Cultural Astronomy and Storytelling group.

This may be my last blog this year for NSBP and I hope NSBP students have learned a bit more about cultural astronomy, useful information about astronomy and being an astronomer, and what a few of us NSBP members are up to. I will end with a big IF: NSBP member Hakeem Oluseyi and I are waiting to hear if we have gotten a NASA E/PO grant to do solar physics experiments in the Marshall Islands during the July 22, 2009, total solar eclipse. IF we get the grant we will take student assistants and make a documentary film about the whole experience including: 1) the solar physics experiments, 2) the experiences of minority students traveling to an amazing location to do a high pressure task, 3) Marshall Islander cultural astronomy including folklore and navigation, 4) local people’s responses to the eclipse, and 5) profiles of the scientists. We hope to hear from NASA this week.

Don’t forget to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy 2009. The Universe: Yours to Discover!

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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1. admin - July 7, 2009

This week Dr. Holbrook’s film “Hubble’s Diverse Universe” is being premiered at the Museum of African American Technology and Science Village in Oakland, CA.