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Reading the Stars

by | Brighton, UK

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

tags: americas, art & design, culture, emergence, making sense, semiotics

In an attempt to undo perceptions of its self-isolation and abstraction, science discourse has begun borrowing symbols and metaphors from supposedly ‘softer’ or more ‘subjective’ languages, such as mythology, poetry or spirituality (as in Brian Cox’s BBC TV series Wonders of the Solar System, in which the science is peppered with mythological or religious contextualisation, and expressions of lyrical wonder). 

By borrowing codes from beyond its historic repertoire, science is engaging in a form of semiotic mea culpa, apologising for years, if not centuries, of perceived coldness, aloofness and pretend objectivity. 

The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii offers a prime example of the scientific mea culpa in action.  Sacred for its mythological meanings, Hawaii’s 13,000 feet-high volcano Maunakea has become just as loaded with value for scientists – for whom it’s one of the world’s unequalled locations for astronomical observation. The volcano’s summit is now home to 13 global observatories, as well as continuing to represent a sacred bridge between earth and sky to Hawaiians.

These two discourses – the scientific and the mythological – might seem tricky to reconcile. But, at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii (the public face of Maunakea astronomy), they’re embracing each other with all the affection of long-parted twins. Everywhere you turn, the centre proposes a new parallel between ancient mythology and legend, on the one hand, and modern astronomy, on the other. For instance, while ancient Hawaiians chanted their Song of Origins, modern astronomers look into space to learn about the birth of the universe. Centuries ago, Polynesian explorers found their way to Hawaii guided by the stars; now, scientists look through their giant telescopes to guide humanity on its journey into the future. 

The ‘Imiloa logo provides a clear example of this attempt to re-humanise science.

 

The abstract, non-human dimension – mountains and sun/moon – doubles up as a stick figure, with this graphic itself subsumed under the anthropomorphic sign of the eye. The lesson: those strange-looking observatories, which have brought the abstraction of global science to the sacred particularity of Hawaiian myth, aren’t to be feared. They’re just prosthetic eyes: McLuhan-esque extensions of the human body itself. And all they’re doing is a technologically-enhanced version of what Polynesian navigators did to reach Hawaii in 300 AD: looking at the stars. 

The agendas underpinning this attempt to marry science and myth are worth looking into – as they affect science discourse beyond the specificities of Hawaii’s ideological challenges. Generally, in the current cultural context, science has to borrow from softer, more particularised and more ‘human’ languages to present an acceptable image of itself. Previous scientific fantasies of neutrality, abstraction and universality are now seen as threatening and dishonest (a cover for suspect agendas). 

But what if the very attempt to recast science as seamlessly continuous with the sacred and the mythological weren’t in itself another form of alibi? If he’d visited the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, Baudrillard would have seen it as an instance of the Enlightenment’s unstoppable mission to reduce otherness to sameness. From being an untranslatable and irreducible symbolic language, Hawaiian mythology has become a semiotic twin of modern astronomy. And, conversely, the strange dishes and spheres of the observatories have become assimilated to naturalised extensions of the human eye, their many mediations and alienations – infra-red, sub-millimeter, x-ray – denied. 

© Louise Jolly 2011

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