1 February 2018 Studying Astronomy and Literature in Chile

From the historic coastal town of La Serena, Chile, students participating in the winter break program set out to observe the same stars and literature that have inspired scientists and authors for centuries. Through the course “Stargazers and Dreamers: Astronomy and Literature” led by Associate Professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies May Farnsworth and Assistant Professor of Physics Leslie Hebb, students observed planets in other galaxies and immersed themselves in the vibrant literary tradition and culture of the region.

During the three-week program, students visited the Cerro Tololo Observatory in the Andes Mountains of the Atacama Desert. The arid climate and distance from city lights provided students with clear night skies to observe transiting planets only visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Because of how long it takes for light to travel, when people look at the stars, what they are really seeing could have taken place billions of years ago,” says Hebb.

In preparation for the program, students participated in a Reader’s College course in the fall with Farnsworth and Hebb where they gained an introduction to astronomy, visited HWS’ Richard S. Perkin Observatory and analyzed literature and films by Chilean artists.

“Our students brought diverse perspectives to the combined study of astronomy and literature because they came from a variety of academic disciplines,” says Farnsworth.

Hebb and Farnsworth chose the film, Nostalgia for the Light as a central “text” for the course. Directed by Patricio Guzmán, the film follows astronomers who observe stars in the Atacama Desert – a landscape where archaeologists have uncovered the bodies of political prisoners who disappeared during Augusto Pinochet’s repressive dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. The film tells the parallel stories of the astronomers searching for old and distant galaxies, and the families’ searching for the remains of their lost loved ones.

“The film illustrates what is at the core of a synthesis between astronomy and literature,” says Hebb. “By observing the stars and reading the texts of Chilean authors, what students are doing is observing the past and trying to make sense of the human experience within it.”

In La Serena, students enhanced their Spanish language skills by speaking with amateur astronomers and locals. Guided by Farnsworth, students read works by authors such as Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende.

“Many of the texts we read focused on the themes of exile and belonging and on the uneasy transition from dictatorship to democracy,” says Farnsworth. “Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and Maiden, for example, illustrated the struggle for justice for victims of human rights abuses in the aftermath of the dictatorship and Pedro Lembel’s novel, My Tender Matador examined connections and points of tension between left-wing revolutionaries and gay rights activists.”

“It was amazing to see how much of an impact these writers had on Chilean culture,” says Jonathan Tuttle ’18, whose trip to Chile marked his second time abroad through the Center for Global Education.

“After studying abroad in Rome in 2016, I returned to the United States with a passion for traveling and an appreciation for exploring new cultures. Our trip to Chile allowed me to study disciplines outside of my major and learn more about an entirely new place,” he says.

For the rest of their stay, students lived in a homestay near the city center and took excursions to cultural sites such as the Museo Histórico Casa Videla Arquelógico and the Nobel Prize winning laureate Gabriela Mistral Museum. They also visited the Reserva Natural Pingüino de Humboldt on the Isla Damas, an island nature reserve home to marine mammals, sea birds and nesting penguins.

As part of a service-learning component of the course, the HWS students wrote postcards to fourth-grade students at North Street Elementary School about their experiences. Later this semester, the HWS students plan to visit the Geneva school to answer questions about traveling abroad.