The privilege of being an astronomer

It’s almost been five years since I last wrote – the time for flexing my blogging muscles is long overdue. I’ve been trying to think of how I could possibly write about such a non-negligible portion of my life (one sixth, to be exact) in a way that doesn’t involve starting at the beginning and recounting each significant event one by one. This is my attempt.

In recent months, the word privilege has kept coming up for me. The privilege of having (almost) completed a PhD in Astrophysics (viva is on Friday, yikes!). The privilege to have travelled far and wide during this time: conferences and workshops in Japan, Finland, Italy, France, and Serbia; a development programme in Norway, Sweden, and Portugal; observing in Tenerife and Bulgaria; and more… On top of this, there’s the privilege that comes with being white, that I was born in the UK, that English is my native language, that I don’t have any caring responsibilities, and that I spent a few years at private school – I’ve always hidden this fact, made easy since I did my GCSEs and (Advanced) Highers at state schools. Regardless, these factors have unfairly given me a helping hand where others are surely more deserving.

For me, this privilege is inextricably linked to guilt. I am enormously lucky to have been able to travel to all of these places during my PhD – not to forget all of my adventures beforehand – admittedly more than most people could ever dream of. All of these trips have been fully funded and I’ve never had to worry about things like visas, a barrier to so many astronomers from the Global South. I’m also trying to come to terms with my high carbon footprint, I flew almost every month last year which obviously goes deeply against my endeavour to live sustainably. In December last year, I decided I would try to go without flying in 2020 to balance things out a little – dare I say, “covid19 silver lining’’? – if I need to go somewhere I’ll go by train, or not at all.

I can’t speak for all postgraduate researchers, but I imagine that the vast majority go through some sort of existential crisis at some point. Why am I doing this? What difference is my work going to make? Surely this is pointless and I’m wasting four years of my life? Wouldn’t the money have been much better spent on someone else rather than me (hello imposter syndrome, my old friend)? Or perhaps this is more acutely felt by astronomers, because really, how is studying a handful of stars in the Universe and learning about their motions useful for anyone in their everyday lives, when 815 million are starving and 1.6 billion lack an adequate home to live in? These questions all help to serve the guilt I have associated with privilege.

That’s not to say that there have not been any moments of clarity; sometimes I felt that doing the PhD was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Finding these moments have been few and precious, and thankfully, they often occurred when I needed them the most. Many times this happened when I was on retreat in the Scottish Borders (yes, the privileged bells are ringing again). There is overwhelming evidence for low wellbeing in academia, especially for early career researchers. We constantly feel like we are not doing enough: not working hard enough, not working fast enough, not learning enough, not managing our time well enough, not reading enough, not networking enough, not collaborating enough, not publishing enough, not presenting (well) enough, not communicating enough, not having enough (original) ideas, not meeting enough deadlines, not doing enough outreach, not living up to our own unrealistic expectations, and failing to take up or continue our hobbies in the hope of feeling-like-an-actual-human-being-with-a-life. (I could probably write an entire blog on each one of these points.)

This pressure (and guilt) builds up until it becomes overbearing and we inevitably end up burning out. If I could only give one piece of advice to someone doing a PhD, I’d promote taking the time to go on some form of week-long retreat each year. This could be alone or with other people. Preferably, somewhere in nature, where there’s space to reflect, see things in a new light, and soak up some of that tree goodness. (See forest bathing – it’s a thing.) Most importantly: Go. Somewhere. Without. Internet; Leave. Your. Smartphone. At. Home. Personally, I love going on the Foundations of Natural Intelligence course (which ain’t a walk in the park), but I encourage you to seek out whatever works for you. These retreats have always reignited my love and passion for astronomy – thanks to some of the darkest night skies in the UK – and jolted me back into a person who is in state of being, rather than a state of doing. It is also very refreshing to explore astrophysics from a metaphysical context, one of the main reasons I was initially drawn to astronomy.

Now, I’m embarking on a new role, a role which allows me to use my astronomy knowledge and outreach experience to actually help people – and get paid for it! For example, I can achieve this via astrotourism, where Namibian tour guides will be able to make money from sharing their (indigenous) night skies with tourists, putting actual food on the table. But at the same time, it takes my thoughts around privilege to a whole new level. At the beginning of this month I was hired by the University of Oxford to start on this postdoctoral research position in astronomy for development. Covid19 permitting, I’ll be moving to Windhoek in the summer, to carry out the rest of the project as a researcher at the University of Namibia (yes, I will have to break my #2020nofly attempt, but for this, it’s worth it). This feels particularly fitting, since some six years ago I applied for a year-long travel grant where I proposed a trip across Africa – something along the lines of astronomy outreach with indigenous astronomers. Five people made it through to the interview stage, and I was beyond devastated to learn that I was sixth in line. Life had other things in store for me first.

I am over the moon to have this position and delighted that my PhD has come to something, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel remorse. I come from a country whose history is steeped in colonialism, a country that acted unconscionably and inflicted unfathomable torment upon countless Africans. Estimates of the number of slaves taken from their African homes by Europeans range between 9–15 million people. In Namibia (then called German South West Africa) alone, at the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples were massacred in the Herero and Nama genocide. Thousands survived, mostly women and children, but they were imprisoned in concentration camps. At least 45% died of disease, exhaustion, malnutrition, shootings, hangings, and beatings. There are many similarities between the Heraro genocide and the Holocaust, not only the concentration camps, but much of the medical experimentation and ideology was also shared. It is known that Hitler knew what had happened in G.S.W.A, and likely drew inspiration from it.

I felt further pain as I came across a publication written in 1888 entitled “The Star Lore of the South African Natives’’, containing degrading language which the author likely didn’t think twice about. The paper quotes a Professor (Henry?) Drummond, “It is a wonderful thing to look at this weird world of human beings, half animal, half children, wholly savage and wholly heathen.’’ I daren’t read on. (A topic for another day: the skies know no borders, yet much of modern Western astronomy also has its roots in colonialism.)

So what can a privileged white girl do? I can remember and acknowledge the past. I can make a pledge, to do everything I can to listen, mentor, and empower others. Do what I can to stay awake to my (un)conscious biases and the influence they have on my work. I would be glad to do even an iota of good, and help tip the scale back in the right direction.

Namibia and I were born in the same year. I’m sure that I will learn a lot more from Namibia than vice versa, nevertheless, I look forward to the time we will share and grow together.

7 thoughts on “The privilege of being an astronomer

  1. I’m so glad you’re back blogging! WordPress has missed you!
    Loved your post and congrats on the new position!
    I feel a bit the same as far as guilt is concerned when it comes to feeling more privileged than others and wondering if it makes sense to spend your life doing things you love and get paid for, while others starve, die and fight every day.
    I guess we’ll never find an answer, still every life is worth living and has some sort of purpose, even when we don’t know what it is.
    Hope to read more from you soon, it sounds like you’ve been on pretty many adventures worth telling others. I’m back in Barcelona now, currently experiencing my retreat in my flat with my lovely cat and all the silence I need for my inner wisdom to show up.
    Take care 🙂

    1. Thank you dear Vale! Glad you are ok.
      Yes I think it comes down to how we use our privilege. It can be used for bad, but it can also be used for good — perhaps that’s key.

  2. philhellene

    Thank you for your post, I got word of it through Amanda’s forum.

    You work on such a huge canvas normally I am not surprised that there are times when you might fall silent (even if that was for 5 years).

  3. This was a fascinating read. You have a very lyrical quality to your writing.

    This gave me a lot to think about.

    Good luck on Friday. I can’t imagine you won’t continue to find success. Nor can I imagine the dedication and hard work it takes to get tot his level of degree.

  4. John Mercer

    What a joy to find this – sometimes internet rabbit holes are great places! Your observations are so relevant for today. What have we done in the past, and never admitted, that explains some of where we are today? The appalling greed and violence inflicted on others for the sake of “more”. How our European wealth and privilege is built on the subjugation of others. I have to deal with this in myself, and, as you so rightly say, make personal choices as to how I want to live my life, not only for myself/ourselves, but especially for those who are to come. What kind of an ancestor do I want to be?

    And yes, it might include how I source toilet paper, because I too, in California give a crap!

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