Science in the Space Between Stars

Interstellar space is the region of outer space that begins immediately past the edges of our solar system. Although interstellar space is often described as “the space between the stars” it is not empty (NASA JPL 2013). Scientists exploring beyond the limits of our solar system venture into interstellar space, and beyond into intergalactic space, in order to “discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars” (NASA Astrophysics 2016). My current research is multi-sited, ethnographic fieldwork with scientists in the U.S. and Canada as they explore beyond our solar system.

Exploration beyond our solar system is both a foundational aspect of scientific research in astronomy and astrophysics as well as an emergent frontier in the search for extraterrestrial life and efforts to send spacecraft to another star. To examine both the foundations and frontiers, I am working with scientists in three areas: (1) Observation in astronomy and astrophysics, (2) Contact through astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and (3) Travel with spacecraft.

Scientists are launching unprecedented interstellar exploration efforts just as the future of life on Earth faces extraordinary danger at the dawn of the so-called Anthropocene era. Interstellar exploration is expanding while anthropogenic influence on our planet and globalizing inequality produce war, famine, drought, refugee crises, fires, flooding, storms, and other threats. This project aims to understand a scientific research program focused beyond these threats, beyond Earth, beyond our solar system, and beyond the present time during this moment of planetary crisis – a series of scientific practices which look to the furthest spatial, temporal, cultural, social, and technological limits of human and non-human possibility.

My objectives in this study are to understand how imaginative, social, institutional, and cultural contexts and influences shape the science of interstellar exploration. A concurrent objective is to understand the role of social science within interdisciplinary space exploration research. This project is motivated by my curiosity about the ways scientists come to think of and engage with interstellar space, how they imagine and prepare for the possibility of extraterrestrial life and interstellar travel, and how that research in turn shapes the ways scientists and publics imagine futures on Earth and beyond. This project expands my previous work on the anthropology of the interstellar (Oman-Reagan 2015).

This research is supported by the Vanier CGS program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivists and Occupy Wall Street (completed 2013)

My first major research project examined transnational connections between the global Occupy movement and online activists in Indonesia. During two years of fieldwork in New York City, online, and in Indonesia, I explored what constitutes an “occupation” for online participants in the Indonesian Occupy movement and what it means for activists to “occupy” in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony. Through this research I produced the first ethnographic account of the Indonesian Occupy movement.

In my MA thesis, “Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivists and Occupy Wall Street” I consider how Indonesian activists adopted Occupy as an umbrella for solidarity among existing counter-hegemonic activist groups and causes. Looking at the politico-legal situation in Indonesia and the emergence of Occupy, I examine how activists created expanded meanings of the word “occupy.” I look at Occupy as a framework for reconsidering the past and ask what it means to Occupy on a site of multiple historical “occupations.” Turning to movement histories and my informants’ memories and biographies, I then situate the Occupy movement within Indonesian histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Suharto’s New Order period. Finally in an examination of indigenous activism, I look at online activity around an ongoing struggle in West Papua, and how this online engagement works to direct attention toward national governments’ complicity in neocolonial resource extraction, land theft, and threats to indigenous communities.