Episode 48: Lucianne Walkowicz on Space – Who Does It Belong To? How Gay Is It?

The "two muscular arms grasping each other" meme against a background of space. On one arm is "astronomy/astrobiology" and on the other is "taxonomy/systematics."

Our new episode is available from our Podcast host here: Episode 48

We’re also listed on:

Find Lucianne(‘s work) online:

Further Reading/Sources:


Charles 0:23
Hello, this is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s, the only science podcast I know about with no cis people allowed. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.

Tessa 0:31
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.

Charles 0:34
And today as our guest we have Lucianne Walkowicz. Lucianne Walkowicz is an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and co founder of the Just Space Alliance, which studies the ethics of space exploration; stellar magnetic activity, how stars influence a planet suitability as a host for alien life; and how to use advanced computing to discover unusual events and large astronomical datasets. In 2017 to 2018, they served as the fifth Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/LOC chair in astrobiology and speaks and writes regularly on topics at the intersection of science and society, which have appeared on Ted.com, Slate, The Washington Post, Vox and more. They’re also a TED senior fellow and a practicing artist working in a variety of media from performance to sound. Lucianne, welcome to the show.

Charles 0:34
Thanks so much for having me.

Charles 0:39
Thank you for coming on. So there are a couple of paths that we can tread. We could talk about your own specific research, but in another podcast episode, you did talk about Elon Musk. And I’ve been spending a lot of my time recently just being really mad at the general idea of Elon Musk.

Lucianne 1:38
Yeah, I mean, totally relatable.

Lucianne 1:41
And we have had a couple of people on before who have off the record talked about Elon Musk, because unfortunately, he has a lot of money and SpaceX has a lot of money, and in capitalism, you got to work to live, you know what I mean? But because you have on record kind of dunked on Elon Musk before I would love, I would love to just wade into that weird cesspool of nonsense.

Lucianne 2:08
Sure, let’s let’s get our floaties on and wade into the cesspool.

Charles 2:15
It’s fine. We’ve got all of our vaccinations.

Lucianne 2:17

Charles 2:18
And I actually just learned the other day that leeches are not a significant disease vector for humans. So that’s, that’s one macro invertebrate we don’t have to be worried about. Unfortunately, there are a lot of others that we do need to be worried about, so.

Lucianne 2:35
Yeah, I feel like at any moment that I’ve been worried about leeches, I was not actually worried about the part where they might give me a disease, but just the part where like, a gross slimy thing was going to bite me and suck my blood.

Charles 2:48
I think this… I think this is the difference between entomologists and other invertebrate scientists, and the rest of the world because like, I would be so thrilled if a leech attached to me, because first of all, you know, I’ve got my camera and my macro setup. And that’s going to be a great shot. I’m always envious of people who have these fantastic shots of something biting them or stinging them. And then secondly, it’s just a little guy. It’s just living his life.

Lucianne 3:14
I feel that way about things that don’t bite me. [all laugh]

Charles 3:17
Fair enough.

Tessa 3:19
Speaking of blood sucking parasites, Elon Musk.

Charles 3:23
I might edit in an air horn noise, that was really good.

Lucianne 3:25

[airhorn noise]

Charles 3:25
[laughs] So actually, I did listen to one of your Flash Forward episodes, because it’s always you know, they’re good episodes. And one of them was on Good Night night. And it was the absence of our ability to see space. And so I, I mean, that might be a starting point with Starlink. And all this nonsense going up into space. And I’m not an astronomer, and I’m annoyed about it, so I imagine astronomers are even more annoyed about it.

Lucianne 3:57
Yes, yeah, there definitely has been, I think, a lot of focus in the past couple of years on what astronomers are going to do about the Starlink satellites. I think, if your listenership is not maybe familiar with Starlink, this is this like giant so called satellite constellation. I prefer like swarm that maybe, maybe that is also a flattering term, if you’re an entomologist, maybe swarm doesn’t sound like a bad thing.

Charles 4:28
I mean, there are a lot of words that you can’t use without it ricocheting back negatively on insects so I’ll give it a pass.

Lucianne 4:37
So this is this idea to put you know, 10s of 1000s of satellites into orbit around Earth and the purported goal of Starlink is to provide internet access to the world like wireless satellite based internet access, and the focus in astronomy has been the effects on the visible night sky because… particularly when the Starlink satellites are first launched, they are actually like naked eye visible, but the bigger problem for astronomers is that they are visible with telescopes. And specifically for the kinds of telescopes that astronomy is very invested in.

Lucianne 5:15
Now, these like big survey telescopes, these things are kind of everywhere. And they really have these, you know, potentially very negative impacts in that they leave like these bright streaks in the pictures of space that we take. I actually think that there’s a variety of other issues with Starlink. But maybe we can just start there.

Charles 5:37
Yeah, well, I think the the first reaction that I have to it, and to a lot of stuff that Elon Musk does is why does this guy get to do this? And then who would let this guy do this?

Lucianne 5:53
Yeah, I mean, never underestimate the power of being like a wealthy white cis man, man, I guess. You know, I think like the, that actually does tie into the sort of underlying problems, I think, with Starlink. You know, for the astronomy community, a lot of the focus has been about like, what will happen to astronomy, you know, how we deal with the presence of these, like, bright streaks, are there things that SpaceX could do to make the satellites darker, etc. But ultimately, like, a lot of the complaints that astronomers bring to the issues around Starlink really come off to a lot of people as being, you know, nimbyism – “not in my backyard” – in that they are ultimately fighting against a company that is purporting to do like a public service, right?

Lucianne 6:41
And, you know, SpaceX, his whole argument is that they are providing internet to the world. And, you know, there’s some, I think, careful word choices about like underserved communities, which in their marketing means, communities that don’t have high speed internet, and to a lot of the world’s means, like, ah, you know, like poor people will have the internet now. But if you look at the like, what Starlink might actually provide the estimated price point for Starlink is like, way over what most, you know, communities in the world who are actually in need of their services can afford a lot of, you know, the countries, for example, where Starlink might be an affordable option already have like national investments in things like 5G networks that would allow them to access the internet.

Lucianne 7:31
And so, you know, it’s this, it’s this thing that SpaceX does a lot where they purport to be serving this like, very lofty goal. But if you look at the details of it, it sort of crumbles, and there’s just not much there there. You know, the, the ultimate goal, right is to make money on this service, you know, they’re not a nonprofit, they’re not a public service provider, they’re not in it to like, do good in the world, unless that happens to be an offshoot of making the money that they’re they’re seeking to make, you know, that’s, that’s not anything controversial. That’s just the nature of, of what it means to be a business in a capitalist society. But I think that they’re very careful about choosing these sort of lofty visions and goals to put a veneer over what they’re doing. That makes things like saying, you know, well, what about the night sky? That makes it sound like astronomers are not interested in people having access to the same privileges that they have.

Charles 8:32
It strikes me that another issue with it is also that because he is embarrassingly rich, he has the ability to enact all of these things without any kind of like, approval process. Do you know what I mean? Like it gets to the issue of who does space belong to? And it seems like Elon Musk’s answer is me.

Lucianne 8:59
Yeah, well, and the thing is, is that, you know, this is it’s partly him taking advantage of a regulatory framework that isn’t really meant to deal with things that are fundamental, like ethical questions. You know, there is an approval process for launching things into space. In fact, the other satellite constellation companies that are interested in competing with Starlink have actually been really irritated, because a lot of the Starlink like approval and proposals clog up the like approval system, because there are a lot of them. And so, you know, the the approval process, though, is like, can you launch this thing on this day? Does it you know, meet FCC guidelines, things like that.

Lucianne 9:43
But for example, and this is something that is an active area of, I would say, like development and concern within space law, is that there are people advocating, for example, to include space in the definition of the Earth’s environment. So You know, here in the United States, we have NEPA, National Environmental Protection Act. And that requires people who want to do something, you know, say you have a company you want to go, I don’t know, dig a big hole in the desert, you know, have a mine, whatever, you have to put out an environmental assessment that says like, how you will not damage the environment, or, you know, an analysis of like what your project will do to the environment. But space doesn’t actually legally count as part of the Earth’s environment. And there’s been movement to try and incorporate near space, at least into the protections of NEPA, because we have this problem of all of these satellites going up and potentially creating, you know, what, what if it happened on Earth would be considered like a massive environmental disaster?

Charles 10:53
Mm… hmm.

Lucianne 10:56

Charles 10:56
[laughing] Yes. I mean, it’s, it’s a bad situation.

Lucianne 11:01
Yeah, no, it’s not great. Well, and you can already see, so just to, to make it explicit for like listeners that don’t necessarily follow space news. The problem with Starlink is that, you know, it’s a, it’s not just like a few satellites, it’s many, many satellites. It’s not just Starlink. It is also like other companies that want to launch these big, like satellite swarms, or constellations. Some of those are US companies. Some of them are entities run by other nations, or national space programs. And basically, it’s making your space very crowded. And the danger from that is that once you start putting lots of things in space, they have to avoid each other. And even though space is very big, you know, we already have a lot of what’s called space, junk, littering our orbital space. And things that are orbiting are traveling really fast.

Lucianne 11:50
So if you have collisions in space, it just makes a whole bunch of other stuff that is also orbiting very fast. And, you know, something the size of a paint chip can like bust a hole, the International Space Station. So it leads to concern about what’s called Kessler syndrome, which basically means like, you know, two things collide with each other, they create many, many 1000s of fragments of shrapnel that then collide with each other, and so on and so on, you get this like collisional cascade that just leads to more and more debris, all of which is capable of doing tremendous damage to other satellites or objects orbiting in space.

Charles 12:32
Yeah, then I guess, to pivot slightly, could you tell us more about your ongoing research?

Lucianne 12:38
Yeah, I work on a really pretty wide variety of things. You know, I would say that right now, the central focus of my research is the intersection of, you know, space exploration, and its societal implications. I’ve also i In the past, and, and somewhat currently with collaborators work on like stellar magnetic effects on planetary habitability. So looking at, like, these things called flares, which are big explosions of radiation that come off of stars, our Sun has them, but Earth is nice and far away from its sun. And so, you know, here on Earth, they might occasionally cause like power outages, but on other planets around other kinds of stars, they might actually create, you know, possibly bad, possibly sometimes good effects for the chances that those planets would have life on them. I am, I think, broadly, just very interested in life in the universe.

Lucianne 13:34
So I’ve also done a little bit of work on applying algorithms that are called machine learning algorithms that probably a lot of people have heard of in like pop culture as like artificial intelligence to the problem of SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. So basically, instead of, you know, that picture that people have, from the movie contact where you like, monitor the sky for unusual signals. I’m kind of a scavenger of data, and that I like looking through big piles of astronomical data that have been taken for other purposes to find unusual signals. So this is called like anomaly detection, where you’re basically just looking for the weirdest thing in the database.

Charles 14:15
I love aliens in the sense of science fictional aliens, because as far as we know, we haven’t found any real ones yet. So you saying SETI and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and then also in your Ask An Astrobiologist episode, you talked about where you thought we might be most likely to find actual evidence of extraterrestrial life. And it was a harsh dunk on Tessa, because you said that you used to think that it was potentially in like atmospheric data from exoplanets. But then you had switched your attitude and thought that it might be more within our solar system, looking at places that don’t necessarily have those signatures. So, harsh dunk on you, Tessa.

Lucianne 15:02
I’m sorry, Tessa.

Tessa 15:04
I did my master’s thesis on like looking for subglacial life on Mars. So like, you know… Okay. It’s all good.

Charles 15:14
But yeah, so I, where I’m really leading with this, somewhat at an amble rather than a sprint is, it is interesting to me the difference of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence versus a more general search for markers of life. And that’s the whole, that’s sort of less of a question and more of an opening for any thoughts.

Lucianne 15:37
Yeah, I am actually working on a book proposal about this right now. And I think the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence versus this sort of broader, like, life in the universe is just a really compelling not just scientific history, but a compelling social history as well. You know, astrobiology, which is kind of that umbrella of searching for signs of life, even though it was like once science fiction has really like, made tremendous strides into being this, like, hot field, you know, lots of people are interested in it, there’s huge conferences about it. And it’s, it’s no longer really in like the territory of being, you know, like thinking about like, bug eyed grey aliens, you know, that step out of UFOs and stuff.

Lucianne 16:28
Whereas the, the SETI part of, of looking for life in the universe. So, you know, me and my social science colleagues will take all kinds of issues with like the use of the word intelligence, for example. But broadly, it just means looking for technologically advanced life that can create the kinds of signals that we would receive and interpret as being from life that, you know, either intentionally, or unintentionally sent a signal that indicated like life with a similar or, you know, at least recognizable level of technological advancement that we have, you know, and I put that emphasis on technology, because, for example, and this is like something that SETI scientists do, too, is like study animal communication, like whales have great intelligence, you know, they, they appear to have language, but like, we don’t have any ability to talk to whales, right? So that would be like, a whole other issue of like, whether you can actually communicate with life beyond Earth.

Lucianne 17:28
But you know, SETI has, for a very long time really had this sort of image problem where it has been attached to conspiracy theories, or like UFO belief, and it’s, it’s often considered to be sort of like a much more fringy thing to work on. And that that is less so in recent years, because there’s been a tremendous amount of investment in in study projects, you know, notably by like, private investors, like Yuri Milner who funds, the breakthrough projects. And, you know, the speaking of capitalism, you know, in many ways, like studies, legitimacy can be traced by its funding, right?

Lucianne 18:10
You know, a lot of the work that has happened in SETI has been largely due to, you know, the efforts of like Jill Tarter and colleagues who has really dedicated her life to doing things like creating funding lines for SETI and trying to perpetuate research into study. Because, you know, I think it’s sort of like the top level, there’s nothing like inherently more legitimate about looking for microbes, than there is about looking for complex life. And so in many ways, the divide between SETI and astrobiology is somewhat artificial. But because the funding history contains so many episodes of the work being defunded that, I think astrobiology is sort of like, in a sense, and this is not like any one astrobiologists doing this, it’s just sort of like a community norm, that there’s a great deal of concern about legitimacy and like, not making an announcement of life until you’re absolutely positively sure, and all of the stuff and all of that comes not only from scientists being interested in like producing good science, which of course is like a reasonable thing.

Lucianne 19:20
But it’s also tied to anxieties about the loss of funding, and therefore the loss of ability to do that work that was experienced in the decades prior. So it’s, in some ways this like very much a like social distinction between these two aspects of looking for life in the universe that I think is both frustrating as like a person who was interested in both of them. You know, I think it’s it can be frustrating, but it’s also like very interesting to me as a person who is curious about how people work in addition to how the universe works.

Charles 19:53
I mean, I… this is, this is becoming a recurring theme on the podcast, but I feel very, you know, meme image of two burly arms, clutching about a lot of astrobiology and astronomy, as well as my background in taxonomy and systematics because that fear of both legitimacy and funding – that’s every day in taxonomy, baby, you know what I mean?

Lucianne 19:53
Oh I’ll bet.

Charles 20:22
Yeah, I, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s interesting, it’s interesting. from an outside perspective, the attitude of looking for microbes feels more legitimate than looking for something that could potentially create technological signals in a way that we would recognize, feels very intuitive, like, intuitively, that makes a lot of sense to me. If for no other reason, then we’ve got a lot of microbes. And they evolved earlier.

Lucianne 20:51
This is true.

Charles 20:52
So clearly, it’s, it’s probably not as hard for them to evolve. Although I do always want to talk about evolution in an extra Earth, like an extra terrestrial context, because there seems to be this underlying understanding that evolution is a process would happen comparably in other forms of life.

Tessa 21:13

Charles 21:14
I always find that an interesting statement.

Tessa 21:15
That’s been for a long time, like people assumed it would be Darwinian evolution to the point that that being capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution was considered like one of the central hallmarks of whether or not you define something as being alive or not. But you know, as we’ve realized, Oh, hey, horizontal gene transfers a thing. And epigenetics, there’s, that’s been slowly weakening, because we’ve kind of realizing that we can’t necessarily make that assumption.

Charles 21:40
I mean, it’s also just like, how universal is the process of like, the evolution that we witnessed on Earth? And I don’t know. Nobody knows.

Lucianne 21:51
I mean, this, this is why it would be great to find life somewhere else, we could actually figure out and maybe answer some of these questions about, you know, how, how typical is life on Earth? And, you know, the fact that we have more micro, I mean, we also have, like, a lot of crabs. There’s a lot of crabs, like we’re not, you know, specifically thinking that like finding crabs is more likely on on other worlds, or maybe we are, I don’t know, I think, I think there’s like a sort of delicious irony in being a creature that builds technology that inadvertently signals into space, and then also, like, looks for things in space, but then simultaneously is like, it could never happen.

Lucianne 22:38
You know, and I will say that, like, you know, to me, the sort of project of astrobiology and that of SETI are really, very complementary to each other, in that you might have a better chance of detecting microbes, but also, interpreting what various like bio signatures might mean, for another world in which you don’t have any kind of like ability to access ground truth outside of your observations of its atmosphere. You know, there are a lot of like, potential false positives. Whereas I think, if you did have like a SETI signal, whatever it happens to be, that really, really does seem to you to be artificially up say artificially generated for which I mean, generated by another form of life with technology, then you have like a smoking gun, right? You know that something exists.

Lucianne 23:34
So, it they really are two sides of the same coin. And I don’t really think they’re in conflict with one another except for the fact that science funding is what it is. And people are very afraid of losing that ability to do their life’s work. And I understand that I just don’t think that looking for being a form of intelligent life, you know, intelligent bunny, bunny quotes with my fingers. That uses technology to look for lifelike itself, I think it’s probably not unreasonable.

Charles 24:10
And I think maybe edging into the realm of wild speculation, if we did find something that we felt absolutely certain was like a techno signature of another form of life. How, like, how would you feel?

Lucianne 24:28
I would be pretty amped. I mean, I like I have organized a lot of my like, personal career around, hopefully, you know, either me or someone making that discovery someday I’m actually not particularly attached to it being me although, I would like to see it happen within my lifetime. I think that would be great. There’s there’s a lot of work on, like what post detection or post contact would look like there’s a number of space anthropologists one in particular Katherine den And who has led a lot of that work? And I think it’s really interesting to think about because there’s, there’s often an assumption of what will be transformed in human society by by this knowledge and, you know, for astronomers, or astrobiologists, you know, I think we are very invested in the answer to that question, right.

Lucianne 25:21
And there’s definitely a fraction of like, this is like, a terrible way of referring to everybody who’s done a science with the public. You know, the public is like, not a monolithic block by any means. And so like, some people will be really, like, interested and find, like, a shift in their perspective, because of it, you know, certain religions might, you know, like, try to incorporate it or, you know, make it Congress with their belief systems. But I think scientists because we’re, we’re like, yes, we are looking for aliens, we have not found them yet. And we do some bunch of like the asserting that we haven’t found them yet that we forget that the reason that we have to do that all the time, is that like, the vast majority of people in the United States think that aliens exist and are visiting Earth. Like the majority of people think that. So, you know, for a lot of people, scientists being like, Am I allowed to swear on this podcast?

Charles 26:22
You can say whatever you want.

Lucianne 26:23
Ok, good – I was about to say, like, holy shit, we found aliens, you know, like, that sort of wow moment for a lot of astronomers would be like, uh, yeah, we’ve been telling you, for the vast majority of people who are not astronomers.

Charles 26:39
Yeah, I think I mean, it is also getting into kind of responsibly doing science, I think, as we saw with, for instance, the discovery of phosphine on Venus, and how easily it is. And just in sort of a general understanding in science communication, broadly, how easily tiny ideas can get spun way out in the public imagination. And then I imagine that feeling of wanting to be really, really careful, is, you know, grounded, at least partially in this idea. If we say that there is life somewhere, tomorrow, there will be people who have spun out entire new realities, based on this pretty minor new discovery. Well, not minor, but limited in data availability, maybe.

Lucianne 27:37
Yeah, I think that, you know, phosphene is, is an interesting example, because it shows you like what an what an ecosystem like science communication is. So you know, you have the, the team that did the original discovery paper. But then part of the the release, which wasn’t really covered in the press conference was that there was also this like, 100 page long paper that I am not sure whether it was ever actually accepted. But it was submitted at the time, I’m forgetting the first author’s name, but Sara Seager is on it. And it put forward this whole, like, theory of like a cloud based ecosystem for generating the phosphine signal.

Lucianne 28:23
And so even from the like, just the science side, right, you have like a spectrum of the ways in which people are communicating about the discovery everywhere from, you know, we think we have found phosphine Period, end of story to, you know, hear is how the light cloud based phosphine ecosystem works in the clouds of Venus. And that’s, that’s a huge spectrum, right? And I think a lot of times, scientists tend to think of like science communication as like, well, the scientist says the thing about, you know, whatever result, and they either express themselves well, or they don’t express themselves well, and then the reporter either interprets what they said correctly, quote, unquote, or incorrectly.

Lucianne 29:11
And so there’s this sort of like idea that there’s like a binary success or failure on both ends of like the scientist and then like the person who ultimately communicates it in the article, right. But in, you know, in reality, and in particularly in the last couple of years, maybe the last decade, even at this point, the communication environment for science and like scientific news, is so wildly complicated, because a lot of publications that used to have science reporters, like because the bottom has essentially fallen out of journalism, a lot of those like, dedicated beat reporters don’t exist anymore. And a lot of the places that people with, you know, science journalism credentials ended up is in the law. Like PR offices of universities or scientific institutions.

Lucianne 30:04
And so, you know, there’s, I think, a pretty complicated like nature to even the way that science gets out. And that there’s the team of scientists who make the decision to like, do the research, make the discovery, published the paper, but then next to them is also usually a press release, or several press releases from their institutions that are also geared towards promoting the the, like, goodness and weight of discoveries made at that institutions, they’re like you entered, you enter into this realm in which it’s not just the science, it’s also like, the science interpreted through the lens of promotion. And then there’s the press on the other end of it, who, you know, generally speaking, again, because like people with science reporting credentials aren’t working out a lot of like, even major newspapers, you know, a lot of like, the local press, for example, are then in the position of trying to interpret the importance of the discovery, what was actually done, you know, whether it’s believable, et cetera.

Lucianne 31:07
And that could be a really, like, difficult thing to do. And so, you know, I think a lot of time scientists tend to, like blame reporters for like, not getting the science, right, or like overblowing it, but it’s just a really complicated. It’s a really complicated communication environment out there.

Charles 31:25
[laughing] You don’t… you don’t say.

Lucianne 31:29
I do actually say,

Charles 31:32
What a surprise to me. No, yeah, it is. It’s tough out there. Yeah. Because I think there is also, you know, often a sense, as you kind of referenced of, a lot of times, sort of in good faith and bad faith, people who are doing science and some, you know, quotes, doing science, often view themselves as an authority who needs to be respected rather than, you know, a collaborator towards knowledge, if that makes sense.

Lucianne 32:09
Yeah, absolutely.

Charles 32:11
Which is very unfortunate, because like, the we will live on this world, you know, that’s not… well, some people are at on the International Space Station. But yeah, I mean, yeah. No, I don’t actually have a lot to add, was well said. Thank you, Lucianne.

Tessa 32:36
I was curious. So as you work at the Adler, you’ve talked about some of the more, I guess, technical research you’ve done, but I know you also do outreach. What has that been like?

Lucianne 32:48
Yeah, pretty different over the last couple of years, and particularly the last year. So one of the things that I’ve really liked about working at the Adler is that, you know, it, I think the bottle of what it looks like to work in a science museum is pretty at least speaking for the Adler I don’t know, whether it’s universally true science museums, but you know, as a, as a researcher in the environment, I spend sort of nominally half my time on research, and then half by time doing program development. And sometimes that means, like actually talking one on one or in groups with visitors to the planetarium, like out in the public area, but it also looks like a lot of other things. You know, I worked for many years on the, what’s called the, the Adler After Dark team.

Lucianne 33:38
So Adler After Dark was our like, 21 and up like nighttime monthly event that was kind of like a big science space party, really fun. And, you know, we really, like work to create these events that people come to that are infused with space science, and they’re usually themed. So that can mean that we have like, science talks next to like, a drag performance under the dome and stuff like that, you know, and then like a dance party, and there’s drinks and copious use of dry ice and the drinks. You know, lots of like, fun touches like that. And it’s, it’s a lot of fun to like, create events or experiences for people around science and and very different than, like the model of what astronomy outreach looks like in an academic setting in which, you know, like you do your research, and then you go and sort of just give like a public talk or something like that. So I’ve really enjoyed that.

Lucianne 34:36
You know, in the past year, we’ve been closed since March of 2020. You know, like, you need an echo effect for due to the pandemic. We’ve been closed and you know, because our focus was on people coming like physically into the planetarium for our experiences, we really did not have a tremendous amount of digital programming, you know, we have a long standing participation with Google Arts and Culture. And so we have these wonderful, like virtual exhibits that are up there.

Lucianne 35:08
But you know, we didn’t really have a ton else. So over the past year, I’ve been working with a group of my colleagues at the Adler to make a YouTube show called the WOW signal. And it is kind of like a combination of like a science space comedy show. So it’s a little like if like Pee Wee’s Playhouse was in space, and also just about science. There are songs, there are puppets. It’s mostly aimed at adults in the way that you know if, like, I watched like Pee Wee’s Playhouse or like Mystery Science Theater 3000, when I was a kid, and those shows are not really for children, like you get all the jokes if you watch them. So it’s sort of like for, you know, millennials, I would say millennials and younger, but really, like we’ve tried to make it so that everybody can enjoy it. And it follows the story of myself and my co workers, Meredith and Chris, and we’re all in the context of the show, we’re all stuck in the Planetarium we have to lock down and like live at our in our offices, and then we get a signal from space. And then we’re trying to, in each episode, figure out what the signal is being caused by.

Tessa 36:26
I have two comments. First off, first off, everyone, you should check out the show. It’s amazing. Secondly, I never realized how badly I needed a drag show to planetarium until you mentioned it. Because that sounds delightful.

Charles 36:45
We can transition into the final aspect of all of our interviews, which is we like to ask our guests to weigh in on one, sometimes more, of our recurring themes and questions. And I know that you got that email because you had the link for this. So is there one or more of those questions that you would like to answer?

Lucianne 37:05
Yeah, I think the one that stood out to me is, is it gay if it’s in space?

Charles 37:09
Classic, a classic.

Lucianne 37:12
To which the answer is yes. Spaces gay. And if you’d like space, you’re also gay now? Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Yeah, no. So this made me think of a really great couple of articles that were written by Michael Oman Regan that I think the title of which is just “Queering Outer Space,” where he is a space anthropologist and writes on a really wide variety of topics and sort of space and humanity and social things.

Lucianne 37:41
But I really liked those articles, it’s been a long time since I read them, so I’m not going to attempt to recap them, you will just have to go and look them up. But you know, I think he often talks about sort of the ability of space to disrupt ideas about you know, like, gender norms, or heteronormativity, that exists here on Earth. And, obviously, there aren’t like a ton of people in space, where you could be like, there it is, space queerness. But you can definitely see that there is the counterpoint to that, where, you know, in unlike a lot of the communication around like the NASA’s Artemis programs, the sending, like people back to the moon, the last administration, which obviously was amazing for gender issues, like a big thing about how they were going to send the first woman to the surface of the moon.

Lucianne 38:37
And, you know, there was like this whole, like, we’re sending the first woman to the moon, you know, and then it became like, the first woman and the next man. And so, you know, like you you constantly encounter, like, pretty much like not very far under the surface of a lot of the narratives around space exploration, you encounter this sort of idea of like recreating Adam and Eve in the garden. And the idea that, like, we’re going to send the, we’re going to send a woman to the moon, but then like, a man is also gonna be there. So don’t worry, you know, she won’t press any buttons.

Charles 39:17
This is actually… Flash Forward did an episode on having a baby in space.

Lucianne 39:22
Yes, indeed, they did.

Charles 39:24
So that might not even work.

Lucianne 39:26
Right, yeah. Well, and also, I think, just like the, the tremendous focus on like, an ironic focus from the last administration, right on like, gender equity being like, oh, a woman on the moon.

Tessa 39:44
Yeah. So clearly what they were really concerned about.

Charles 39:47


Lucianne 39:47
Right, yes, absolutely. And not, you know, not something that is just like some party line. I actually and YouTube might know this but might not know I led a protest of Mike Pence his presence at the IAC meeting in October of 2019. In which I dressed in a handmaid’s costume for his talk. And iron on lettered. Will I will we be human? Will we all be human on the moon? On the back of the the handmaid’s cape.

Tessa 40:22
That is amazing.

Lucianne 40:24
And surprisingly made it past security.

Charles 40:29
Well, they were a fan.

Lucianne 40:31
Right. [laughs] Yeah, I did I did, you know, like, not wear the cape on the way into the room, so.

Charles 40:39
Yeah, I will say this, this might get edited out, but there’s a series of YA novels. I liked the first one. I don’t like the other one so much. It’s the like, I can’t remember what the series is called but it starts with Cinder. And it’s basically a re imagination of like, classic fairy tales and a relatively far future Earth. I like Cinder a lot, I don’t like the other ones as much.

Charles 41:07
But part of the idea is that there has there has been human colonization of the moon for so long that the people on the moon are now a separate, like, species. Although I will say I don’t think that Marissa Meyer had a bio consultant on her writing. Because I a lot of people would take issue with the distinction between those two as being different species because they can still interbreed. So according to the biological species concept, they’re not distinct. Anyway, which then is barely relevant, but it did make me think about this – and at what point human colonization elsewhere would lead to a speciation event.

Lucianne 41:54
Yeah, who, who knows we have to make sure humans survive this planet, let alone another one. And I think it’ll be I think it’ll be like a good long while until we have enough humans anywhere else that that would even be a thing, I guess. I’d also I don’t know how biology works really.

Charles 42:20
Fair. Yeah. I always just think about because I’ve also been rereading the Wayfarers books, which I do like very much. And just the thought of not… I mean, ultimately, the thing is, I like I happen… I like Earth, and I like living here pretty well.

Lucianne 42:37
Oh, same.

Charles 42:38
I don’t particularly want to live anywhere else. And so yeah, I mean, you didn’t specify this as one that you would like to answer, ao you don’t have to. But I think also because I know that you have written and spoken about, you know, against sort of colonizing Mars. And… yeah, I don’t really have a follow up on that except… yeah, I mean, Earth is pretty good.

Lucianne 43:04
Yeah, I mean, Earth is great. It is by far my favorite planet. But I will say that, like, I, I think what I feel troubled by, or I feel troubled by the focus on humans going and living off worlds, you know, like, I am deeply curious about other worlds. And I would like to, you know, learn lots of things, particularly from Mars, you know, I do think that there are potential like, advantages to humans being present in some form to, you know, enable, like more, more efficient, more complex forms of exploration that aren’t really possible with just like fully remote autonomous, or not even autonomous rovers.

Lucianne 43:50
But also, and I find the idea of like, people living in space exciting, because, you know, I just do, but at the same time, I also think that the thing that I’m specifically opposed to is the way that a lot of narratives about people living in space have been about, like, pretending that we don’t have a responsibility to this planet. And that, in addition to that, there is sort of like an escape hatch, right, that the, that the idea is that we will go to Mars because, you know, humans will need to escape from Earth.

Lucianne 44:28
Or, and this is like my, my least favorite iteration of this is the idea that humans will need to be quote, unquote, backed up, you know, that like humanity is is like bits of data, which is like very Silicon Valley technologist idea. So of course, that’s where it comes from, but that human beings are like backups of the species and that we like we need to go like make sure that people live on Mars, so that humanity doesn’t get deleted. You know, which I think is you know, It’s sort of like one of those, like many of the, like, sort of Silicon Valley techno optimist ideas.

Lucianne 45:04
It’s like, something that like, if you see the idea from across the street and you can’t see any of its details, and then it’s like gone a second later you’re like, ah, yeah. Okay. But then if you look at it again, and you’re like, Okay, so like, Who who is the backup for human? You know, like, yeah, who is going to Mars? What are their jobs, etc, then it starts again to crumble. But yeah.

Charles 45:29
And I think particularly in you know, circling back to Elon Musk, it is such a clear to me, extension of sort of white settler colonial attitude towards land and towards the land that you inhabit. And this attitude of the only relationship you need to have with it is an extractive one, where it is a fully one sided, what can I get from this rather than a relationship.

Lucianne 45:58
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I will, I will bring it back to our conversations about SETI, right is that, I think a lot of the anxieties that you hear about, like, what aliens might be like, and like, you know, that we shouldn’t try to discover life beyond Earth, because what if then it knows we’re here and just like comes and puts humans into a giant blender and just extracts all of their chemicals? I don’t know, you know, all of these, like images we have of like aliens being inherently like, violent extractive, you know, colonizing are really reflective of like, the majority of people writing those books and movies, etc, media properties, whatever they happen to be being like, either white Americans or, you know, otherwise, like Europeans, that so much of like science fiction comes from this like point of view that is informed and shaped by fears of being colonized, because it’s written by people who are largely colonizers.

Lucianne 47:03
That’s not true of all science fiction, but I think a lot of the popular images that we have of like, what would happen if we came into into contact with aliens, is very much informed by that idea. When, you know, if you, if you really, like don’t know anything about alien life, which, you know, we kind of don’t, there’s no reason to assume that it would be like that, you know, you might actually assume that, if life beyond our planet had gotten to the point where it could, you know, make a spaceship and get here, they probably figured out some things like how not to die of common diseases that we might like to know about, maybe, maybe just a thought, but the, you know, the the fact that like, the popular imagination never really goes there is partly like storytelling, right? Like conflict makes for good storytelling, but also, like the conflicts in particular, I think are very much about like, in the case of Americans being like woof wouldn’t want to get colonized.

Charles 48:06
Yeah, it’s, yeah. And I think, yeah, this is what one of the things that ultimately makes me so sad about Elon Musk’s whole deal, and not just him specifically, but sort of a broader thing that he represents just the fear that, you know, I think in a lot of people’s minds, the promise of space and space exploration was as kind of an equal footing of an obviously, that hasn’t really borne out, but the idea being that, you know, the sort of the fantasy of going out into space and spreading ourselves and seeing what’s out there, and, you know, a lot of the fantasies of that, for instance, Star Trek have a unified earth of an earth that recognizes all people equally, and then, you know, sort of the pessimism of seeing what is happening now and being like, well, it’s just gonna be all the same garbage that we have here – but now in space.

Lucianne 49:08
Yeah, I mean, I think it definitely on my like, least optimistic days, I you know, it really is hard not to feel like that I think I bring to this like a long involvement in like activist spaces, which is all about being like, everything is garbage. Well, okay. Let’s let’s try to work on cleaning it up. I guess. You know, being I would say like being an activist and organizer is some is a project that is like, fundamentally about being a realist and maybe like a skeptical optimist, I would say, because there’s something inherently optimistic and thinking that you can enact change.

Lucianne 49:51
nd so, you know, I bring that lens, I think, to a lot of the work that we do with like, just base alliances and that if I did didn’t think it was possible for us to not only change the way we think about space exploration, but also change the way we live on earth. You know, we have many problems here that I think we also need to be working on solving at the same time.

Charles 50:13
You don’t say… alot of that. Yeah, that’s a surprise to me.

Lucianne 50:17
Yeah. Today’s interview guest is Captain Obvious. Doctor Captain Obvious. Yeah. So, you know, I think, yeah, I don’t really have it in me to like, give up those things entirely. So I guess I will just keep trying to like shuffle. Just shuffle the garbage out of the way. Because, you know, like, Elon Musk is like one loud, rich man. And like, who amongst us has not had to ignore a loud, rich man at some point in our lives in favor of listening to other people and what they have to say?

Charles 50:56
Yeah. Oh, good point. A good ending point.

Charles 51:06
Well, Lucianne, thank you so much for coming on.

Lucianne 51:08
Oh, thanks for having me.

Charles 51:09
You’ve been a real delight. If people want to find out more about you or your work online, where should they look?

Lucianne 51:14
I think probably, you can look at my twitter I am @rockettolulu and my website is tangledfields.com and Just Space’s website is justspaceealliance.org. And I also started a Patreon not that long ago called not not rocket science. So if you look at patreon.com/notnotrocketscience, you could find me there too.

Charles 51:39
Fantastic. I am on Twitter @cockroacharles, and Tessa?

Tessa 51:43
I am on Twitter @spacermase.

Charles 51:47
The show’s on Twitter @ASABpod or at our website where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode asabpodcast.com.

Tessa 51:55
And until next time, keep on science-ing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s