Fourth Wednesday in the Physics department means donuts, I have discovered. As we munched away on that sugary morning goodness, we tried to wrap up everything that has happened in this block. By the nature of taking a cross-listed anthropology and physics class, the content of this block has been pretty varied. Our final projects (and there were a few) ranged from notes on a book about ethnoastronomy – the socio-historical study of the relationship between culture and celestial features – to a project using Starry Night software to compute the visibility of celestial events through history. We completed a block long project measuring the angle between the Moon and the Sun, when they are both visible in the sky. In this project, we applied the theoretical knowledge gained throughout the block regarding the angle of the Moon and Sun, relative to earth, and the way this relationship dictates Moon phase. We have talked physics and culture, and the two have complimented each other immensely.
However, it is a difficult bridge to cross. Fundamentally, we have no idea whether our current understandings of the movements of stars and planets are anything akin to the understandings of those who passed before us. We do not know what they believed, and we do not know how important such beliefs were to their culture and way of life. We have indications, but no empirical facts. This is the danger of history, especially when dealing with indigenous and marginalised populations whose peoples, culture and lifestyle thrive today: how do we infer without Othering; how do we extrapolate without stereotyping?
And once we’ve mentally wrapped our heads around all this, where does the physics fit in? How do I marry Kepler’s Third Law with the potential alignment of great kivas to the cardinal directions, when we are not even sure whether the Major Lunar Standstill was observed? In today’s world, very few people know the stars or pay them much heed. The knowledge is specific, rooted in mathematic jargon, and thus at least seemingly inaccessible to a regular Joe. Looking back we ask – how was this knowledge, whatever extent of knowledge there may have been, shared? Did these people we so easily romanticise truly turn their faces upwards to their great nightly television, or are we too easily lulled by the dream of human beings as environmental stewards?
Throughout this block I have found myself gazing skyward. A few nights ago, my housemates and I lay on the roof and gazed at the moon. I told them the story of how the earth and the sky are like a great kiva – the kiva that encompasses us all, and is the home of those ancients who built the first kiva on the ground for human dwellings. Biking home at night, I slow down to gaze at the stars, weaving my way across the road and trying to not hit parked cars. I’m currently in New Mexico, spending block break camping near Santa Fe. Last night, I pointed out the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt, and explained to my friend why we could see a waning gibbous moon rising at midnight.
If there is one thing I will take from this class, it is to look at the sky more. I have navigated by the stars before, and remember making the same assertion then. In the mania of everyday life, both at CC and elsewhere, it is too easy to forget the stars. To run from class to meeting to study to practice to work to bed without once looking up and saying hello to the moon. But this time I’ll try to stick to my mental note – while biking at night, while walking from the Mod Pod to Worner, while staring out the window in search of motivation to write – to look not down, but up.