Introducing the Cultural Astronomy Blog Series

“Meteorological Station on EL Misti. Elevation 19,200 feet.” Black and white photograph, dry mounted, ca. 1890-1900. Harvard College Observatory in Peru Collection. John G. Wolbach Library, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

What skills are required to work as a professional astronomer? The question on its surface sounds easy enough to answer. A typical response might include “a strong grasp of physics”, “knowledge of coding languages”, or perhaps even “analytic thinking”. Yet these answers neglect to recognise another aspect of a career in astronomy– the need to engage in dialogue and policy-making when solving complex, historically-rooted problems. 

Over the past several years, several cultural conflicts in astronomy have made a resounding impact, forcing astronomers to wrestle with enormous and complex challenges, such as the legacy of colonialism, racial and gender inequity, and the rise of private space industry. Yet it is perhaps unreasonable to expect astronomers to already possess the skill sets and background expertise needed to properly address these issues.

This blog series is designed to function as a starting point for astronomers to equip themselves with the tools and resources needed to unpack the elaborate socio-economic components of a career in astronomy. 

The series will address several pressing questions within the discipline:

  • How has astronomy benefited from (and been harmed by) systematic inequality?
  • In what ways does the language of the scientific community reflect its ties to the military and colonialism? 
  • What is the role of astronomy in contributing to the social good?

In approaching these questions, we will highlight subjects and events specific to the Center for Astrophysics, as well as the astronomy community as a whole. In providing a launching pad to learn more about existing scholarship on the cultural aspects of astronomy, we strive to help our community engage in open and informed discussion with the goal of developing inclusive excellence. It is also our hope this series will provide fodder for future exhibits at the Wolbach.

The first blog of the series, launching on March 29, 2021, will cover the Voyager Golden Record and examine how the situated perspectives of astronomers affect their views of the world.