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Wokeness isn’t new: Apparently there was such a thing as Marxist astronomy

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At least for Dutch astronomer Anton Pannekoek (1873–1960) , also a Marxist thinker, and council communist:

In the many drawings that Dutch astronomer, Marxist thinker, and council communist Antonie (“Anton”) Pannekoek (1873–1960) made of the Milky Way over the course of his life, it is not immediately clear what we are looking at. The band of stars appears like a smudged backbone, sometimes in “true” colour (white stars on a black background), and sometimes inverted, with the stars as dark points and the “milk” of the Milky Way made inky. They are simultaneously vague and precise — something between a charcoal rubbing and an X-ray.

In fact, the drawings are not technically of the Milky Way at all, because according to Pannekoek, such a thing was not actually accessible as a purely objective entity. While it was widely understood in Pannekoek’s time that even highly-skilled astronomers fall prey to observational bias during stargazing (a phenomenon known as “the personal equation”), Pannekoek went further, theorising that what we perceive as the Milky Way is actually a visual trick that emerges at the intersection of the stars and the people on earth who perceive them. During an article published in an 1897 issue of Popular Astronomy, Pannekoek discussed the well-known problem of the Milky Way’s ocular inconsistency, wondering if “the character of the galactic phenomenon precludes its being fixed by delineation”.2 This was not just a failing of observational science; it reflected what the Milky Way actually was: a kind of optical illusion that changed its shape depending on the lived experiences of the observer, their historical period, and how these experiences informed the patterns that the mind constructed out of the fluid nature of reality. Pannekoek’s drawings, then, are of the act of perception itself — an approach informed by his political beliefs.

Like Marx and Engels — who drew on Feuerbach, Hegel, and Heraclitus — Pannekoek understood material reality to be a “continuous and unbounded stream in perpetual motion”.3 He also believed that the human brain had a tendency to generate fixed, abstract patterns from this fluidity, patterns that are always socially and historically contingent.

Lauren Collee, “Marxist Astronomy: The Milky Way According to Anton Pannekoek” at Public Domain Review (October 27, 2021)

Pannekoek would have been a stalwart, had he lived in our day, in the war on math.

You may also wish to read: Further dispatches from the war on math (September 14, 2021) Discussions of social policy where math is relevant can be useful. But a student who does not understand how an equation works will fail at both math AND social policy.

5 Replies to “Wokeness isn’t new: Apparently there was such a thing as Marxist astronomy

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    At least from the quoted part, this sounds perfectly rational and concrete.

    The ‘personal equation’ wasn’t a social construct. It was a quantitative calibration of the astronomer’s reaction time. Sidereal time measurements depended on catching the exact moment when a major star crossed a line in the scope. Astronomers who were engaged in time and longitude measurement used a Personal Equation Machine to calibrate their neurons and muscles, so they could standardize their measurements of a real star.


  2. 2
    News says:

    Polistra at 1, chances are he would have accepted or repudiated any finding based on “socially and historically contingent” issues. That’s in the fine print.

  3. 3
    Belfast says:

    Thanks for that, Polistra, I had vaguely assumed it was a fancy word for some sort of calibrated bias.
    Thanks again.

  4. 4
    Taraxacum says:

    The real mystery is how this astronomer managed to get through school with a surname which is Dutch for pancake.

  5. 5
    LoneCycler says:

    Polistra at 1
    In land surveys I would often establish true azimuth of a boundary line by observing the Sun or Polaris. It was necessary to record the time when the star aligned with the vertical wire of a theodolite telescope. I listened to the WWV time station broadcast on a shortwave. The stopwatch was started at the beginning of a minute as broadcast and noted. The stopwatch lap time intervals were added to this time to give the UTC of star transit. So there was some error when the stopwatch was started and again when the lap time button on the stopwatch was pressed by the observer. Not to mention error in pointing the theodolite. Some of the people on my survey crews were better at producing good azimuths and some were incapable.

    An observing session would consist of 12 observations and the accuracy of the times recorded directly affected the end result. If someone could measure 12 azimuths that did not vary by more than 15 seconds of arc from each other using Polaris or 60 seconds (1 minute of arc) using the Sun they were given a raise on the spot and promoted to Crew Chief. A Personal Equation Machine would have saved me a lot of time, trouble and money sorting out who had the necessary skills and aptitude before spending hours on training and testing.

    All of these skills have gone by the wayside. Today you just occupy the points between which you want an azimuth with a GPS receiver.

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