Total Solar Eclipse Coverage in Africa: Boundary Maintenance and the Control of 'Image' within the African-American Scientific Community

By Holbrook, Jarita; Oluseyi, Hakeern et al. | Critical Arts, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Total Solar Eclipse Coverage in Africa: Boundary Maintenance and the Control of 'Image' within the African-American Scientific Community

Holbrook, Jarita, Oluseyi, Hakeern, Williams-Livingston, Arletha, Critical Arts


Two total solar eclipses in Africa are the setting for this study of the representations of black scientists in the international media, focusing on newspaper articles, Internet sites and television broadcasts. Careful consideration of the eclipse coverage in 2001 and 2002 led to the decision by these scientists to assume control of their own images during the 2006 eclipse, with some success. The simulcast of the 2006 eclipse was initially a collaboration between National Society of Black Physicist (NSBP) members and their host institutions, the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute (EBASI), the University of Cape Coast in Ghana and Cable News Network (CNN). During the final weeks before the eclipse event, this collaboration fractured into two independently funded efforts with differing agendas. The second group broadcast images of the Sun exclusively, which was meant to represent 'pure' science, while the first group presented a broader picture of astronomy that included interviews with African and African-American astronomers, interviews with University of Cape Coast students, and Ghanaian cultural astronomers. This latter cohort focused on local Ghanaian fishermen and their use of celestial objects for navigation, horology and weather predictions. That the larger group fractured in two is reflective of the debates of who defines science, who has the authority to speak about science, and who controls the images of science and scientists. This example is unique because it occurred within the ethnic space of African-American astronomers and physicists; it physically takes place in Africa and it captures the physical impact of cross-discipline encounters in this case.

Keywords: Africa, African American, mass media, scientist, stereotypes, total solar eclipses



Astronomy is defined as 'the scientific study of matter in outer space, especially the positions, dimensions, distribution, motion, composition, energy, and evolution of celestial bodies and phenomena,' and as 'a system of knowledge or beliefs about celestial phenomena' (American heritage dictionary 2004). Although many scientists and non-scientists alike may have the impression that the practice of science in general, and astronomy in particular, is a highly objective affair, the reality is that only certain, subjective voices are commonly accepted as authoritative within the scientific community and by the media (Harding 1991 and 1998; Hetherington 1988). In this article the authors aim to analyse how who conducts such 'scientific studies' is portrayed in the media, as well as whose 'system of knowledge or beliefs' dominates the media.

Here, the United States (US) and British media's coverage of the 2001 total eclipse of the sun is used as a case study for analysis. In both these societies, white males are traditionally viewed as the arbiters of science. The natural phenomenon in this case --the solar eclipse of 2001--was observable only from southern African countries. The next section briefly outlines the conditions necessary to observe a total eclipse of the sun, and highlights the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) efforts to publicise the event. The section thereafter provides an analysis of the coverage of the 2001 eclipse by NASA and the Exploratorium, CNN news, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and three websites. Next, the article focuses on how the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) and Morehouse College, in conjunction with African scientists, reported on the 2006 total solar eclipse which, as with the 2001 eclipse, was observable from Africa. Next the difference between the NSBP's coverage of the eclipse and that of the 2001 eclipse is described, and the authors discuss the debate on 'pure' and 'impure' science and the boundaries related to coverage of the eclipse. The article concludes with suggestions for improved scientific reporting in which Africans, people of African descent and other nonwhites are acknowledged as scientists.

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Total Solar Eclipse Coverage in Africa: Boundary Maintenance and the Control of 'Image' within the African-American Scientific Community


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