Adam Nieman – Welcome to the Neighbourhood: Belonging to the Universe (Even if Most of it is Hard to Get to) – 2004
First publication workshop Space: Science, Technology and the Arts in collaboration with ESA/ESTEC, 2004
Welcome to the Neighbourhood is an ongoing project whose immediate goal is a ‘Celestial Signpost’ in the centre of Bristol, UK, which will be followed by similar installations around the world. This public science initiative emerged from a fine art project involving kinetic sculptures. However, the original sculptures themselves were informed by academic work on the visual culture of science. This paper describes the sculptures and outlines the ideas that informed them and which remain central to Welcome to the Neighbourhood. It goes on to discuss the current project itself: the roles of the public and of ethnographic research and the productive tensions between the conflicting imperatives of media and education research, commerce and fine art.
The role that space art may have in extending and enabling public involvement in space science and astronomy is not straightforward but potentially very interesting. The main issues raised by the impact of space art on non-scientists’ engagement with space relate to the way it can, under certain circumstances, empower viewers to take ‘ownership’ of space – to form an authentic conception of their place in the cosmos.
On Earth, in Space
The origin of the current project was an idea I had for a collection of sculptures. What the sculptures have in common is that all of them are clearly on earth and in space at the same time. What they set out to achieve in the minds of viewers is the sense that, like the sculptures and the earth itself, we too inhabit space. Thus the sculptures are tools for locating a viewer in the cosmos, disrupting the notion of space being ‘up there’ or ‘elsewhere’.
This, it might seem, is not such a radical idea. As soon as children understand the principle of ‘addressing’ it is common for them to generalise the idea. Our address, according to a six-year-old, then, would be ESA ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands, Europe, The World, The Solar System, The Western Spiral Arm, The Milky Way, The Local Group, The Virgo Cluster, The Universe. My goal, then, is to make objects that allow us to really feel that we live here rather than just understanding it intellectually, like six-year-olds. Thus, on a personal level, I want a more cosmopolitan sense of my own place in the galaxy. However, there are two major obstacles to such a sense of place – two accidents of circumstance that keep our outlook parochial.
If we want to feel part the cosmos, the first parochialism to overcome is the sense that the ground is ‘still’. We measure and experience motion relative to our local horizon. The ground is our primary reference frame, the frame against which every other motion is judged. To be part of the cosmos, we need an alternative reference frame, and it’s not good enough to merely understand it, we need to see it or feel it some other way. This is one of the sculptures’ roles – they provide an alternative sense of stillness against which viewers’ own motion through the Solar System can be perceived directly. This means, of course, that they have to move in relation to the surface of the earth.
The second parochialism is an accident of evolution: we are just not very good at perceiving distances on astronomical scales. The distance cues that work so well for us on the surface of the earth (motion parallax, linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, etc.) are largely absent from our experience of the sky. As a result, we cannot see for ourselves how far away things are. One of our dimensions is missing! This is the other way the sculptures help. In terms of spherical coordinates, the sculptures, by various different means, restore the absent ‘r’ to θ and φ . That is, they allow us to perceive not just objects in our celestial neighbourhood but the three-dimensional space they inhabit.
Experiment with different celestial sculptures and two main types emerge. If the celestial ‘neighbourhood’ referenced by the sculpture is outside the Solar System, a ‘one-axis’ sculpture is appropriate. If the neighbourhood is within the Solar System then a ‘two-axis’ device is used. The following is an example of each.
Fig. 1 shows a pair of two-axis machines called ‘Sun, Moon, Tide’. Each of the long, pointy prisms can move about two axes and so point in any direction. In this version, they track the moon and the sun, indicating the distance to each. When placed near tidal water, the relation of sun, moon and sea slowly becomes apparent (to patient viewers).
Fig. 2 shows a maquette of a one-axis machine called ‘Local Stars’. 48 Perspex rods of various lengths project radially from a sphere with a light-source at its centre. Light is guided through the rods making their ends glow brightly. This construction rotates about an axis that points north and makes an angle with the horizontal that is the same as latitude of the location (e.g. 52° 15’in Noordwijk). The period of rotation is 23 hours 56 minutes (one sidereal day). This is the central portion of the kinetic sculpture. The outer portion of the sculpture consists of carefully selected star systems. Each rod corresponds to a star system and points towards it. The length of each rod corresponds to the distance between the star and the sun. As the central construction rotates, the rods remain aligned with their corresponding star systems. (Thus, the sculpture does not rotate with respect to the galaxy as a whole.) The viewer is invited to imagine the central construction and the stars being connected by light as it travels from each star system to its corresponding rod and vice versa. The star systems selected are the 48 closest to earth that are visible to the naked eye. The sculpture as a whole (inner and outer portions) is approximately 60 light years across.
Empowering and disempowering audiences
To position this account of tensions in a project involving space art, some personal background is necessary, which requires me to be more visible in this paper than I would normally be comfortable with (I already have trouble using the first person). The reason for adopting this approach (which is common in cultural studies) is so readers can make allowance for the authorial perspective that inevitably pervades the account. Thus, my paradoxical goal is invisibility rather than visibility.
My first degree was in physics and involved some astrophysics and cosmology but my academic work since has been in the humanities rather than the sciences (though science is usually the subject of my research). My PhD research was on the popularisation of physics and the visual culture of science. Whilst developing these sculptures I was teaching new media theory and science studies. Outside academia I have worked as a graphic designer. In addition, I have made art, though this has never been a dominant activity. My work (academic or otherwise) involves a combination of contrasting and often conflicting approaches. My academic research usually involves making things and the things I make spontaneously usually draw on theory I’m working with (though this does not make them ‘intellectual’). Welcome to the Neighbourhood has involved this mish-mash of art and intellect from the beginning, and continues to do so.
Several interests that emerge from my academic work are reflected in the sculptures but I shall outline just one of these, and briefly. A goal of both the sculptures and Welcome to the Neighbourhood is to empower viewers to make space meaningful for themselves; I am not interested in communicating my own feelings about space through the sculptures. The aim is to leave room for the viewer (or ‘user’ in the case of Welcome to the Neighbourhood) to have an authentic experience of their own. It is not the job of Welcome to the Neighbourhood to tell people how or what to think about space – just to be there for them when they do. The reason this was central to the project from the start is because my earlier research had revealed ways in which the communication of science can be actively disempowering. Although setting out to produce sculpture rather than popular science, issues of empowerment and disempowerment framed my approach because they had been so prevalent in my research.
Science Comes With ‘Instructions For Use’
A criticism that can be levied against the dominant modes of communicating science to non-scientists relates to the way scientific knowledge is communicated with ‘instructions for use’ . What I mean by this is that popular science books, museums and other popular contexts for science rarely give space for readers or visitors to make scientific ideas meaningful for themselves. When we are told about, say, the geology of Mars, what is also communicated is why we should be interested and the way we should be interested. Implicitly we take on ideas about legitimate and illegitimate reasons for being interested in Mars. Along with ideas about right and wrong ways to be interested, we learn who is allowed to have their own opinions about Mars: if you are reading a popular book, it’s not going to be you! Nonscientific subjects (art or politics for instance) are addressed in a manner that is generally less prescriptive than scientific ones.
Science museums are increasingly ingenious about allowing visitors to ‘discover’ things for themselves – providing them with embodied experiences of physical phenomena. What they are not yet good at doing is letting the visitor decide for him or herself why such experiences are valuable. We gain knowledge but it comes with instructions for use (and the guarantee is invalidated if we diverge from these instructions). Art galleries and artwork, in contrast, provide more scope to engage personally and authentically. In these postmodern times, the hegemony of connoisseurship has been effectively vanquished in galleries and viewers have more freedom to make art meaningful for themselves. Largely through the effort of artists themselves, the audience for art needs no longer to defer to the artistic equivalent of the ‘instructions for use’ that I am describing for science.
I should be clear that my problem is not with scientific authority. There are good reasons for trusting accounts in popular science texts and it is clearly ‘illegitimate’ to dismiss the conclusions of scientists without the means to challenge them on their own terms. I am talking here only of how we make those conclusions meaningful for ourselves. That is, I accept that there are right and wrong ideas about space but I reject the notion that there are right and wrong ways to think about space.
For good reasons, scientific rhetoric (as well as the rhetoric of popular science) tends to assume that the discourse takes place in a vacuum – that it is distinct from and unaffected by alternative ways of engaging with the world. That is, speaking ‘scientifically’ is to pretend that a scientific account is the only way to address a topic. A consequence of this rhetoric is that there is no need to position a scientific account within a wider theoretical context. This is one of the reasons that science is so powerful, but it also causes problems, because there is almost always a wider theoretical context. Understanding when and why to ignore other ways of engaging with the world is one of the hardest aspects of science. Although this argument may seem condensed to the point of being cryptic, the bottom line is this: there is a problem when we are asked to engage ‘scientifically’ with topics that we already understand in other ways. The entreaty to put these other ways of engaging with a topic to one-side often feels like an affront, especially when it is a topic close to our hearts like the nature of humanity (genetics, socio-biology), the meaning of the universe (cosmology), or beer (pharmacology, toxicology, microbiology, nutrition).
Astronomy and space science are topics to which we bring considerable knowledge and experience. The assumption that an audience is like a blank slate is as misguided (though even more common) in astronomy than it is in genetics. Rather than discuss the types of knowledge we bring to astronomy in a taxonomic way, I shall merely point to a couple examples involving the sun and the moon. Although astrophysics tells us a great deal about the sun, it is our direct, daily experience of it that is most significant to us. We make the sun meaningful for ourselves first and incorporate astronomers’ perspectives second. The same is true for the moon. When, at the nadir of the Cold War and the zenith of technological optimism, Neil Armstrong stood on the moon, it wasn’t left to scientists to tell us how we should find this interesting. For more subtle phenomena though, we find a distinct propensity amongst astronomers to provide us with ‘instructions for use’ – a wont to tell us how to orient ourselves to their work and to the universe itself, which is often alienating for non-astronomers. The message non-astronomers take away from much discussion of astronomy is that, conceptually at least, space belongs to somebody else. We are told (effectively) ‘if you have any feelings of your own about the stars, the planets or the structure of the universe, then you are trespassing’.
Again, I want to be as clear about what I am not saying as what I am saying. I am not arguing that science detracts from our experience of space. The opposite is true. Our experience of the sun, for instance, is much richer for just a little knowledge of solar physics. However, clumsy discussion of astronomy can have the effect of de-legitimising other ways of engaging with the wonder of space. If, at the back of your mind, there is the sense that space is the province of ‘experts’ then considering your place in the ‘greater scheme of things’ can feel like an act of trespass. This gets in the way of idly gazing up at the stars, let alone buying a telescope and getting further engaged. Amateur astronomy too is more prescriptive as a hobby than it need be. There are clear expectations of what one’s interest in space should consist of and how it should manifest itself. This is true of other hobbies, even non-scientific ones such as trainspotting. The difference is that astronomy has potential to be far broader than it is. Contrast the social and conceptual restrictions of amateur astronomy with the relative freedom we have to experience landscapes in multiple different ways.
It is not astronomy itself that is the problem, it is the idea that there are right and wrong ways to think about space and our place in the cosmos. Incidentally, when commentators complain that science does detract from our experience of the world, and argue that it has robbed us of our humanity (see, for example, ) I believe it is usually the ‘instructions for use’ that they have a problem with. Scratch the surface and their argument is not with science, just the control-freakery of much science writing. However, anti-science arguments are usually so poor that it is often hard to tell. This is another regrettable aspect of science communication: arguments against science are usually not good enough to be interesting.
Taking Control of Scale
Of the ‘instructions for use’ that we pick up along with ideas about space, the one that annoys me the most is the way we are expected to feel insignificant. This is a commonplace in discussions of space. How many times must we be told that the earth is an insignificant speck? What are we supposed to feel when we are asked to contemplate the scale of the universe? One clue comes from the people who make such statements themselves. Next time you see an astronomer telling an audience how insignificant we are, watch the smug look on his or her face. He or she (though probably ‘he’) will be enjoying the sense of being un-phased by news calculated to make his audience feel humble (I know this because I have been guilty of smugness myself on occasion, which helps me to recognise it in others when I see it). He’ll claim to be communicating a sense of sublime wonder but astronomers’ own sense of the sublime is not predicated on their humility – so why are the rest of us supposed to feel insignificant?
Scientists tend to be ungenerous with their insight, though most would be mortified to think so; the lack of generosity is not conscious. For instance, astronomers tend to tell us, “you can not imagine how big this is (even though I can)” rather than, “this is how I make sense of structures on this scale, you can do it too.” Through my own education, I know what it feels like to be ‘one of them’ as well as ‘one of us’. The comfort zone of physicists extends into vastness and smallness that others find intimidating. I have myself been tempted to ‘freak people out’ by wielding large exponents, but doing so is not the same as communicating a sense of the sublime.
Though the vastness of space is undoubtedly awesome, the sense of wonder that the contemplation of space inspires in me does not equate to humility. The bigger the universe, the happier I am to be part of it; the bigger the space in my mind, the bigger I feel myself. I believe that such attitudes are not uncommon amongst those we might describe as ‘science cognoscenti’ but it saddens me greatly that it is membership of this exclusive club that empowers me to feel positively about my place in the cosmos when discussions of space degenerate for others into a shock and awe assault on their dignity.
A valuable and empowering, aspect of science education is the way it extends our experience of the world. Science extends the experience (of the cognoscenti at least) beyond human scales of time and space and beyond the small subset of phenomena that impact upon our senses. (The process of translation by which we make sense of extra-human experience is discussed in more detail in .) However, the way astronomical scales are addressed outside of professional contexts can be positively disempowering for reasons I have already mentioned and others.
Both Welcome to the Neighbourhood and the original sculptures have drawn on another project called ‘Scale Explorer’. This was to be an interactive atlas of the universe that allows users to create their own conceptual maps of phenomena. It works by allowing users to frame their own questions about the relative sizes of things and then to display the answers in whatever way they find most meaningful (see Fig. 3). The original sculptures and Welcome to the Neighbourhood each reflect these concerns about scale. Rather than merely informing viewers/users about the scales of the structures referenced (which reinforces the sense that, conceptually, space belongs to somebody else) Welcome to the Neighbourhood aims to empower viewers/users to take control of astronomical scales for themselves.
Welcome to the neighbourhood
Welcome to the Neighbourhood uses structures that are recognisably on earth and in space at the same time and builds these into a multimedia system designed for (and partly by) ‘ordinary’ people. Rather than communicating scientific information, the aim is to provide tools and representational systems that enable individuals to explore their own interests, values and beliefs within a scientific domain. The goal is a ‘toy’ rather than a ‘textbook’. The project is an experiment involving ‘tools to think with’ rather than an attempt to maximise the quantity of knowledge imparted.
There are many ‘neighbourhoods’ that could have been chosen (near earth; sun and moon; solar system; local stars; catalogued stars and nebulae; milky way; local group; etc.) Following literature reviews and initial user surveys, we concluded that the solar system was the most appropriate neighbourhood to concentrate on for the prototype; it involves a manageable range of scales and covers many of the phenomena that users would expect to see in an astronomy resource. However, most of the principles that emerge form the development process can be applied equally to more specialised or more generalised installations. The metaphor we adopted was a local information kiosk (of the type that are increasingly common in UK cities). Thus, users come to the kiosk for ‘local’ news and to identify key locations and find out what they are like. The first phase of the project concentrated on the design of the user experience. The sign itself in the first prototype is an LED display 1.4m long that is moved by a computerised telescope mount, which supplied by the system with equatorial coordinates and supported by a tripod. The second phase involves creating more content and designing a structure that will incorporate the touchscreens and moving sign and stand up to the onslaught it will receive in a public urban environment (see Fig. 5).
At the heart of the installation is an extensible mathematical model of the solar system that also contains catalogues of stars, nebulae and galaxies. The software can render all of these in 3D. Users select an object for the sign to point to from a set of buttons on a touchscreen. When selected, the sign displays the distance to the object from the signpost’s precise location and slews into alignment with the object. On the screen, an animated journey to the selected object is displayed. The time it takes is proportional to distance (~90 seconds to get to Pluto, ~1 second to get to the sun). On one side of the screen we see a view of earth from a fixed distance in the direction of the object. On the other side, we see the object itself from the same fixed distance in the direction of earth. This allows users to compare the object with familiar features. On ‘arrival’ users can move around the object and move closer or further away from it using buttons on the touchscreen. All scenes are realistically illuminated by the ‘sun’. The user can also control the rate at which time passes in the simulation. Although this breaks the direct connection with the sign (which continues to indicate the ‘realtime’ position) it allows many celestial phenomena to be experienced directly such as the rotation of objects on their axis, their rotation about the sun, seasonal variations, the orbit of moons, etc.
The first shock for users is to see how quickly the distances change: the solar system is revealed to be a very dynamic place. The second shock occurs when the sign points below the horizon, when, for instance, the sign suggests that to travel directly to Jupiter you would have to tunnel through the earth. Why should this come as a surprise? We all understand from an early age that the earth is spherical and that it is ‘in’ space. (That is, we all embrace the ‘Copernican earth’ discussed in . We are also fairly familiar with the idea of celestial objects rising and setting. Nevertheless, for most of us, space is up! Engaging with the signpost then, brings about a sort of gestalt switch from merely knowing (if asked) that we are standing on the surface of a sphere to actually perceiving it. This is a shift from an absolute conception of up and down to a relative one.
The model and interface are a development of Celestia, an opensource astronomy simulation program by Chris Laurel . Celestia is designed by astronomy enthusiasts for their peers. Over weeks or months of use, the full functionality of the program emerges and users pickup the keyboard commands by which they can navigate through the time and space of the model with grace and ease. Welcome to the Neighbourhood is quite different in that casual passers-by must be able to use it immediately and it must be engaging for all users: those with no explicit interest in and indeterminate knowledge of astronomy and enthusiasts with expert knowledge alike. The modification required was, therefore, substantial but mainly affected the user interface. The program also had to be modified so that it could control the electronic displays and electric motors.
Flexibility was a design imperative and many aspects of the program can be modified without a programmer. The principal short-term reason building-in this flexibility was that we wanted to be ready to respond to issues as they emerged from testing with users. The principal long-term reason was that we saw potential for Welcome to the Neighbourhood beyond the particular manifestation we were working towards and wanted to ensure innovations were not stymied by the need for radical reprogramming. In addition, we saw potential for the program itself beyond its use in the Welcome to the Neighbourhood project and wanted to ensure that it could be a foundation for very different astronomy applications.
To ensure this flexibility, a) we decided to build a Web interface rather than hard-coding the interface into the program. This allows anyone with Web design skills to radically change the program; b) we decided to fully implement a scripting language into the program (which was only a pipe-dream in the Celestia community at the time) and extend it to offer much greater control of the Celestia display. Most of Welcome to the Neighbourhood’s functionality is controlled by script and so can be modified relatively easily. In due course, the program will be made freely available for others to use as is or to modify for their own purposes.
What users think they know and what they think they want to know
Since August 2003, the project has been in development at NESTA Futurelab (a not-for-profit education and technology research institution). At Futurelab, research and development is based on users’ actual experience. Once Futurelab took the project on, user studies were the principal means of identifying aims, directing effort and measuring success. The emphasis on the user would have been counterproductive in the early conceptual stages but was absolutely vital at the stage the project had reached by the time it came to Futurelab. There is an element of serendipity here. Had we set out to produce a public astronomy resource it most likely would not have been Welcome to the Neighbourhood. However, recognising the potential of an idea that has been developing in a quite different direction over a long period of time is another matter.
Our studies involved structured interviews with an opportunity sample from the streets of Bristol and more detailed activity based interviews with staff and clients at the SOFA Project (a low-income charity based in Bristol). Evaluation of the phase-one prototype was based on videos of 70 users at four sites in Bristol. This work with users has shaped the project as much as the original idea and earlier theoretical work on science in public contexts. However, space/time does not allow detailed discussion of the research and its conclusions here, or even an overview of existing literature. (When a more detailed account is published, details will be available on the Futurelab Website.) However, our research into conceptions of space and astronomical phenomena was consistent with earlier work in this area. Such work often surprises people with an interest in astronomy because of the sheer quantity of confusion it reveals about ‘basic’ concepts such as day and night and the difference between stars and planets. The lesson from the literature, which is fully supported by our findings, is that people engaging with astronomical ideas are not ‘blank slates’ and if you do not allow for what people think they know, you will fail to engage with them at all. One consequence of this for Welcome to the Neighbourhood is the inclusion of a ‘tour of space’ in place of what would have amounted to a glossary. Understanding definitions requires a coherent conception to begin with (or the absence of any conception whatsoever). A tour, on the other hand, allows us to introduce concepts in context. It also allows us to explain by showing rather than telling. Mindful as we are of the disempowering effect of ‘instructions for use’ the Tour is a delicate and challenging text to construct.
One of the surprises from the user studies came from the initial interviews. When asked what interested them about space, participants seemed to have two modes of response, and would switch from one to the other without difficulty. In general the answers would relate almost wholly to the earth and how humans would fare on other worlds. Several people expressed an interest in life on other planets, but their interest in this topic tended to be limited to its implications for us on earth. Understandably, earth was the touchstone for most conceptual engagement with space. Nevertheless, having discussed space in this parochial manner, many respondents began to speculate on much more general questions such as the finiteness (or otherwise) of space and the purpose of life and existence in general. Some respondents claimed to dislike thinking about space precisely because it raised these uncomfortable ‘big’ questions. What struck me was the absence of any middle ground between very parochial interests and very profound universal issues.
Reflecting on my own interest in space, I realised that ‘big’ questions are often a long way from the things I think about. So, I am clearly parochial rather than philosophical but the reason for this is that, as a member of the astronomy cognoscenti, I have a lot to occupy my mind between edge of the atmosphere and the edge of time. Welcome to the Neighbourhood helps to fill in some of the gaps too. There are ways in which space should feel familiar. A perpetual state of reverential awe can blind us to the true wonder of celestial phenomena. Awesome as it may be, I want to feel at home in the universe (even if much of it is hard to get to).
Welcome to the Neighbourhood is a flexible tool that allows people to engage with space on their own terms. It will also allow us to continue exploring the ways that people make space meaningful for themselves. The project has moved from space art to public science by two principal means: a) direct collaboration with users; and, b) a clear vision for authentic engagement with space.
The project discussed in this paper has been supported by NESTA Futurelab; Copus; NESTA; DTI.
The interface described is developed from Celestia. The second phase prototype is being designed in collaboration with Springboard Design Partnership. Much of the user research was conducted in collaboration with the SOFA Project, Bristol, UK.
Core team: Adam Nieman, Keri Facer (Learning Research Director), Alex Burton (Programmer), Jon Frost (Technical Manager), Andrew Milton (Project Manager), Martin Lashwood (Project Manager), Dan Sutch (Learning Researcher).
(I am grateful for the support and encouragement of many nameless others also.)
References and Notes
Editor’s Note: Some links from the original article are no longer valid. We have removed them. You can however find them in the original publication from 2004
 Spherical coordinates, like Cartesian coordinates, are simply a way of specifying a location in three-dimensional space in relation to an ‘origin’ (such as our own location). To specify a location in Cartesian coordinates we ask, how far along a left-right axis is it? how far along a forward-backward axis is it? and how far along an up-down axis is it? These three distances (x, y, z) determine the location uniquely. In spherical coordinates we again need just three numbers to specify any location. This time the numbers are two angles and a distance (θ, φ, r). To specify a location, we ask, in what direction is it? (0° to 360°); what is the elevation of the location above or below the horizon (-90° to +90°); and finally, how far away is it? For astronomy, spherical coordinates are usually more useful than Cartesian coordinates. Measuring the distance (‘r’) is the hard part for astronomers as well as for casual observers.
 Adam Nieman, The Popularisation of Physics: Boundaries of Authority and the Visual Culture of Science (PhD Thesis) University of the West of England. 2000.
 Bryan Appleyard, 1993 Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, Picador
 Op. cit. , pp. 76-90.
 Julien Knebusch, ‘Planet Earth in Contemporary Electronic Artworks’, Leonardo, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 18-23, 2004.
© Adam NIEMAN & Leonardo/Olats, mai 2004, republished 2023
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