Science, art, and reconciliation: Steven Tingay at TEDxPerth



you you the Aboriginal people living in this continent that we call Australia have been here for a very very long time so illustrated by the many dozens of different language and cultural groups that have developed around the country you can see that over the the tens of thousands of years this has become a very rich and diverse community the first European contact with the indigenous population of Australia was in the very early 1600s only a few years before Galileo first turned his telescope to the night sky in Italy and over the last 200 years since the commencement of permanent occupation by Europeans and others significant gap has developed between indigenous and non-indigenous communities so in that 200 years as Australia has grown enormously wealthy primarily through things like mining and agriculture this gap has developed I'm showing here just a few statistics that come from 49 metrics that are recorded regularly in a very nice report from the Australian Productivity Commission called overcoming indigenous advantage so take a second to digest these numbers as a scientist I find myself often faced with examining very subtle differences between two sets of data rarely in science you ever faced with differences this starkly especially when you take these statistics and convert them into human terms and especially when you see the consequences of these these differences especially in some of the remote communities where you really see the the on-the-ground challenges that are being faced so I'm not a social scientist tired I'm not a historian I find this sort of engaging in this debate a little bit awkward I'm obviously not an indigenous person I'm not a politician but I do find the scale of the the challenge and the issues overwhelming as a scientist and a person I want to find a way to contribute positively to this debate the the idea that I think is worth sharing today is that science can play a really interesting role in helping drive creative activities that that work towards reconciliation in this country so I want to talk about that idea and illustrate it by talking about one particular project that I've been involved in my science is a astronomy radio astronomy so my team and myself are building massive radio telescopes up in the Murchison area of Western Australia roughly 700 kilometres north of here this is in fact the the telescope that we've we've only just completed and formally launched in a in an event last Friday this is called the Murchison widefield array it's a low-frequency radio telescope that's a precursor for the much much larger Square Kilometre Array I'm sure many of you have heard of that so this project is being pursued on the land of the Rajat eegammagee people everything that we do out on that land is in close collaboration with the Waja t energy people and we operate under an indigenous land use agreement it's a very beautiful country it's as you can see flat pristine it's extraordinarily quiet it's a really beautiful place Murchison Shire has about the geographic area of the country the Netherlands and has a population of about 100 people that's why we're doing what we're doing out there there's no people with devices with wireless and cars and Industry it's an extraordinarily quiet and beautiful place so this connection with with the land where we're building the radio telescopes has naturally lent itself to a very close engagement with the Wadley energy people so back in 2009 which was the International Year of astronomy we kicked off a project called ill girigiri which in the wajdi emoji language means things belonging to the sky the idea here was to bring together two groups of people who wouldn't typically normally closely interact those groups being indigenous artists from around the Geraldton and the Murchison area and astronomers and astrophysicists so the idea was to get these people together and explore our different perceptions of the universe in the night sky the the night sky is not the domain of any one person or group of people it's one of the few common points of reference for the entire human race it's part of our shared heritage virtually everyone has looked up at the sky at some point and wondered about what are those things what is the universe why are we here it's not something that can be owned and it defies ownership the night sky therefore was a very non-controversial starting point for our project so a very different starting point to say talking about land rights or the convoluted history of the last 200 years so he was an opportunity to get people together to talk about this shared heritage in our different views so we went out to a bellari station at the Murchison now which is where we're building these radio telescopes we had about 15 indigenous artists and we had three or four astrophysicists we walked over the country and we learned a lot about the connection between the people and the country and talked a lot about what we were doing that the telescope and the really interesting overlay of this incredibly modern technology that's examining objects in the early universe 13 billion years ago the first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang and it's placed within this incredibly ancient and beautiful landscape so there's some really interesting discussions simply around that the real action was when the Sun started to go down and we built a campfire and we had the opportunity to sit around the campfire and talk to each other about the Stars so this is a this is a picture of us around that campfire upper Pilate station now that there must be some there must be some astronomers in the audience I hope you can see the the image there but can anyone spot any famous constellations in that image just yell out Orion yet nicely done anything else maybe it's a little bit hard to see but yet Orion is a very famous constellation in the Western mythology Orion is a hunter and just to guide your eye that's a very schematic version of Orion with his arms and legs the Western mythology has Orion chasing a group of young women across the sky the Seven Sisters we know them in the in the Greek mythology as the Pleiades it's a little bit hard to see on this image because just setting below that horizon at the time that this photograph was taken but there is the there is the the seven sisters so Orion the Hunter is chasing these seven sisters across the sky what was amazing in our discussions was the indigenous Australian view of this part of the sky and a really incredible similarity in that the indigenous people also consider that plea deeds a group of seven sisters completely independently not only that these seven sisters are also pursued across the sky in the indigenous story by a hunter but not Orion not the stars we know as Orion but the stars that we know as Taurus represent the hunter in the indigenous culture because the stars look like the the head of an arrow or a head of a spear and that represents the hunter chasing that the Seven Sisters across the sky I can tell you that the purpose of the chase is the same in both stories but it would not be appropriate for me to talk about it here you can go home and look that up but this incredible similarity between vastly different cultures with vastly different histories both independently came up with the same story of the same part of the sky so discussions like that really really emerged once we once we started to sit down and talk to each other under the stars and many of you I'm sure have had similar experiences where you're sitting under the night sky particularly someplace like baladi where the horizon is flat there are no towns there are no lights it is completely dark that the sky is beautifully clear and you feel just completely drawn in and immersed in the universe the stars alike you can reach out and grab them so this is the this is the telescope that we're building and it's a time-lapse photography of the night sky so this is that the type of view that we were getting watching this great celestial canvas sort of slowly scroll across the biggest screen on earth and in that environment people open up people start talking to each other people start sharing their stories and that's exactly what happened another amazing story that we we talked through was the the story of the EMU so this is a this is a constellation or star pattern that's completely unique to the indigenous people of Australia there's no equivalent in the Western mythology that's because the star pattern is made up not of the connections between stars but made up of the outline of the dark patches that run along the center of the Milky Way galaxy so when you go and look at the Milky Way you trace the outline of these dark patches and it makes this incredible picture of an emu and I've never seen this and you have to be out in a dark location to see this but once it's pointed out to you it's absolutely astonishing it's an absolute dead ringer for an emu and whereas the western constellations are sort of this big on the sky the emu takes up half the sky stretches from the zenith all the way to the horizon the really amazing thing about the emu is that in the autumn period straight after the Sun sets the emu is rising in the east and looks for all the world like it's sitting on a nest and it turns out that this is exactly the time of year when you go out and hunt for emu eggs so when you see the emu sitting on the horizon on the nest straight after sunset you know it's time to go and collect emu eggs this is just an astonishing coincidence or or what I'm not so sure but when it was explained to me I had that really sudden flash of meaning I guess where lots of things fit together and it brought home to me that science and art and culture and all these things are really much closer in terms of generating ideas than most people think so it was exactly the same feeling that I get when I take some data and take some theory and put them together and things work there was just this amazing flash of meaning in in this explanation of the EMU and its connection to the land and to the people and to the animals that all came together so this occupied us for hours and hours sitting around and talking sharing our stories and everyone went away incredibly energized both both the the scientists and the artists over the coming months the artists went away and produced over 150 original pieces of art based on the experience so this included paintings that involved the the traditional indigenous stories of the night sky so the seven sisters the EMU and other stories but also contained a lot of pieces that were inspired by the interaction with the scientists so we'd taken telescopes with them and they'd seen Jupiter and Saturn and star clusters through the telescopes and we talked about radio waves propping propagating through space and all of these subjects were picked up by the artists and produced in these absolutely incredible works of art some of which you can see here on the slide the the artwork was then curated into an exhibition of around about well very between sort of twenty and fifty pieces this exhibition opened in Geraldton now it came to Perth that went to Canberra went to Cape Town Washington DC den haag in the Netherlands Berlin and Brussels over the last few years so we've had a global tour of this artwork inspired by indigenous and non-indigenous astronomy and something really interesting has happened as that exhibition has travelled and the artists and the astronomers have traveled with it the discussion has become a lot deeper between those groups so now we spend a lot of time talking about the value of different types of knowledge the the cultural value in different societies and really some of the very big challenges in preserving in particular Australian indigenous culture so this has been a really nice thing that over time has been expressed through our work and we've been incredibly privileged to be able to bring not only the art to the people of Western Australia in Australia and the world but also these messages so so what are what's the bottom line here what are the ideas worth spreading well here science and art bring indigenous people and non-indigenous people together in a very positive way with a very interesting and unique starting point for the discussion that really kicked off our relationship as the relationship is built and growing and trust has been established those discussions have become a lot deeper and with being able to propagate those discussions out all over the world so I'd argue that in a very meaningful way those recognized reconciliation goals have been advanced by this work I can see no reason why this model could not extend to other areas geology botany biodiversity marine science the weather I think there's a pretty long list so I'm very happy to have been part of this project and I think science has an interesting role to play but I think probably the deeper message and the deeper idea is that it doesn't matter who you are or what you do everyone I think with a little bit of thought and work can incorporate the goals of reconciliation into their everyday lives thank you very much you

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