Mountains of Controversy: Narrative and the Making of Contested Landscapes in Postwar American Astronomy

Swanner, Leandra A. (2013) Mountains of Controversy: Narrative and the Making of Contested Landscapes in Postwar American Astronomy. Doctoral thesis, Harvard University.


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Beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, three American astronomical observatories in Arizona and Hawai’i were transformed from scientific research facilities into mountains of controversy. This dissertation examines the histories of conflict between Native, environmentalist, and astronomy communities over telescope construction at Kitt Peak, Mauna Kea, and Mt. Graham from the mid-1970s to the present. I situate each history of conflict within shifting social, cultural, political, and environmental tensions by drawing upon narrative as a category of analysis. Astronomers, environmentalist groups, and the Native communities of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the San Carlos Apaches, and Native Hawaiians deployed competing cultural constructions of the mountains—as an ideal observing site, a “pristine” ecosystem, or a spiritual temple—and these narratives played a pivotal role in the making of contested landscapes in postwar American astronomy. I argue that anti-observatory narratives depicting telescope construction as a threat to the ecological and spiritual integrity of the mountains were historically tethered to the rise of environmental and indigenous rights movements in the United States. Competing narratives about the mountains’ significance were politically mobilized to gain legal and moral standing, and I interrogate the historical production of these narratives to gain insight into the dynamics of power in these controversies. By examining the use and consequences of narratives, I establish that the grassroots telescope opposition is representative of a highly influential participant in postwar Big Science: the vocal nonscientific community that objects to scientific practice done in its backyard. Marshaling divergent narratives has profoundly constricted both scientific and religious uses of the mountains, resulting in the loss of telescope projects and the increasing bureaucratization of prayer activities at the summit. Finally, I adapt Peter Galison’s concept of “trading zones” as regions of local coordination between two disparate scientific cultures to encompass the cultural worlds of scientists and nonscientists involved in the observatory debates. Through the social and material exchange of mutually understood concepts, some Native and scientific communities established fruitful communication and collaboration, but I argue that these trading zones have also effectively dissolved and homogenized the distinct cultural identities of both communities.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: Astronomy Education Research
Depositing User: Users 1 not found.
Date Deposited: 30 Mar 2017 08:44
Last Modified: 19 Aug 2018 09:11

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