What Indigenous cultures can tell us about astrophysics: SBS/NITV

Gomeroi astrophysicist Krystal de Napoli is preserving First Nations knowledges about the environment and universe around us through scientific communication.

Original article here

The Dark Emu of Aboriginal sky lore, seen within the Milky Way. Indigenous cultures hold an immeasurable wealth of scientific knowledge. Source: Getty images

Writer and astrophysicist Krystal de Napoli says there is a level misinterpretation and unawareness when it comes to Indigenous oral history and what the many millennia-old stories can tell us about the universe.

“People who have a very shallow understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture will think of Dreaming stories as mythical,” she said.

“In actuality, [these] stories are the vessels in which we encode our science knowledge,” de Napoli said.

Long before modern scientific methods of recording data existed, Indigenous oral histories recorded and passed on environmental occurrences, with the observations accurately describing events that occurred in this country 30,000 years ago and more.

“From the fiery explosive death of stars in the sky, the presence of a Great Southern Star 12,000 years ago, volcanic eruptions 40,000 years ago which forever changed the landscape, sea level rise, and millennia-old meteorite impacts, Indigenous knowledge bases answer questions about our past while also being able to guide our futures.”

Communication is key

Communicating science is what Krystal does best.

She is the co-author, along with Karlie Noon, of Indigenous astronomy book, Astronomy: Sky Country, recently nominated for The Age Book of the Year. She also hosts the Indigenuity radio show. They’ll be making an appearance for National Science Week, running 13 – 21 August, at the Space Imaginaries Symposium presented by the Powerhouse Museum for Sydney Science Festival on the 18th of August.

She says key to further understanding the lessons Indigenous oral histories can contribute to modern science practices and our futures is ‘knowledge sharing’, a two-sided venture: it involves the community becoming more scientifically literate, while scientists are encouraged to communicate in a more accessible ways.

It’s something that de Napoli says is important for us all in a time of increasing climate instability, and First Nations cultures provide the tools.

“Science communication is an inherent component to the way oral cultures thrive. Aboriginal science is encoded into our Dreaming stories – we store our knowledge in intricate, multi-layered, interconnected stories that can inform us about all areas of human knowledge in an engaging, fantastical way – from young babies to expert knowledge holders,” de Napoli said.

Cosmic battle: Nyeeruna vs Kambugudha

De Napoli has a favourite example of Aboriginal astronomy communicating a complex topic, namely ‘variable stars’.

Variable stars are a subgroup of stars (our own Sun is not one of them) which vary in brightness over time. This variation needs to be at least 0.1 magnitudes (the unit for measuring the apparent brightness of stars in the sky) for the human eye to see it unaided.

“A Kokatha oral tradition describes a cosmic battle between a lusty, aggressive hunter named Nyeeruna (seen as the constellation ‘Orion’ in the sky) and a staunch protective woman named Kambugudha (seen in the Hyades star cluster in the constellation ‘Taurus’).

“The story describes the interactions between these two characters as Nyeeruna pursues Kambugudha’s younger sisters (the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters).”


The Orion Nebula (Source: Getty)

“They are both able to summon a fire magic during their fight over the girls: in the case of Nyeeruna, he summons a fire magic into his right fist (seen in the sky as the star ‘Beteleguese’) in order to strike Kambugudha, and for Kambugudha, she summons a fire magic into her left foot (seen in the star ‘Aldebaran’).

“The summoning and the dissipating of the fire magic is used to represent the dimming and brightening of those two stars.”

The scientist says it’s an incredibly engaging description of a scientific event, and what’s more, accurate.

“What excites me most is that they aren’t just describing that those stars do dim, but are describing how they specifically dim relative to one another over time,” she said.

“In the story, Kambugudha is not always able to summon her fire magic back in response to Nyeeruna, which is accurate to say of their stars. Aldebaraan varies less consistently and less often than Betelgeuse.”