Impossible Images

Impossible Images

Radio astronomy, the SKA and the art of seeing

In the arid landscape of South Africa’s northern Karoo, astronomers and engineers are slowly building the biggest scientific instrument in the world. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will one day link radio telescopes across the African continent and the Southern Hemisphere, turning much of the planet into a vast ear for picking up the faintest echoes from the early universe. I am interested in exploring the conceptual and representational challenges posed by radio astronomy in general, and the Square Kilometre Array in particular. What kinds of cultural artefacts and images are likely to be produced by the SKA, and what kind of relationship will a non-specialist audience be able to have with them? And how can the Karoo array’s unprecedented power to look (or listen) back in time be related to the deep human past that has left traces all through this landscape?

In addressing the SKA as a writer, the challenge is to recognise both the fascination of outer space and specificity of earthly place. Doing so has revealed to me a major difference of intellectual impetus between the sciences and the critical humanities, one that is perhaps suggestive of why they so often ‘miss’ each other in public conversation. The first seeks to isolate and decontextualise its object of knowledge: to filter out earthly noise; to minimise the signal of its own instruments; to avoid seeing its own structures in a distant, even unimaginable mathematical space. The second always feels the urgency of introducing contingency and context: to bring into frame the desperately poor environs of the northern Cape; to remember the British imperial project that carries astronomy to the tip of Africa; and to look for the history that hides in its brilliant and unearthly images. 

‘Impossible Images: Radio Astronomy, the SKA and the Limits of Representation’, forthcoming in Journal of Southern African Studies (2019).

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