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Astronomy, space and place in the Karoo

Venue: PLAAS Boardroom
Date: 8 May 2018
Time: 13:00 to 14:00

Presenter: Prof Cherryl Walker SARChI Research Chair, Stellenbosch University

In this seminar presentation I draw on recent work within my research programme to reflect on the tensions around ‘space’ and ‘place’ that are playing out within large areas of the Karoo currently designated Astronomy Advantage Areas (AAAs) under the 2007 Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act. To date most of the Northern Cape (constituting some 30% of South Africa) has been declared an AAA. This is to facilitate the development of astronomy in the region, centred on the South African Large Telescope (SALT) at Sutherland and the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope (SKA), a mega ‘big science’ project centred on a core site outside Carnarvon. Here some 118,000 hectares of formerly commercial farm land are being converted into a ‘special nature reserve’, accessible only for purposes of science. Over time the footprint of the SKA will extend far beyond this core site, including into other African countries. Of concern is that radio astronomy’s requirements for radio silence make co-existence with other land uses, including agriculture, more difficult than in the case of optical astronomy. This paper explores the implications of these developments across different scales, including their intersection with emerging identity claims and broader challenges to sustainable land use in the Karoo. It concludes that the promotion of astronomy is premised on an essentially metropolitan view of this area as desert ‘space’, now being put to good use in the service of national and global science, rather than as deeply historical (and contested) ‘place’, facing significant social challenges today.

Follow seminar live on twitter: @PLAASuwc #KarooSpacePlace