Our Universe and its Ends
Science Communication on Astronomy, Asteroids, and Apocalypses
Although they were not an astronomical conjunction, three significant events did converge in the summer of 2023. These events might not be cosmological in scale, but nevertheless led to a diverse combination of creative science communication activities on the universe, our planet, and astronomical apocalyptic threats. The three events were: the year of science 2023 based on the theme “our universe”, announced by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF); the UN-approved campaign for International Asteroid Day on June 30; and the continuation of the Apocalyptic Boardgame Day in Heidelberg.
The BMBF’s decision to dedicate this annual year of science in Germany to “our universe” reflects a focus on the astronomical sciences, yet it is also meant to allow for broader e.g. philosophical perspectives or activities around environmental sciences. Quite fittingly, two CAPAS fellows in the summer semester 2023 – Duane Hamacher and Richard Wilman – worked explicitly at the intersection of this topical area and the surrounding scientific perspectives. Both of their research focuses dealt with apocalyptic astronomical phenomena and threats, especially comets and meteors. Additionally, International Asteroid Day, held annually on 30th of June each year, also coincided with the summer semester. This event was instigated in 2015 as a UN-approved campaign to raise public awareness of the hazards that asteroid impacts may pose. As part of the campaign, organizations around the globe organize science communication events on that day. The date June 30th was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Tunguska impact of 30th June 1908 – the largest impact of modern times, which destroyed over 2000 sq. kilometres of Siberian forest.
On this occasion, CAPAS partnered with Haus der Astronomie (House of Astronomy) in Heidelberg, the joint outreach institution of the various astronomy-related research institutes in Heidelberg, to organize a complete week around June 30 with a series of science communication events. CAPAS fellow Richard Wilman and Heidelberg Geologist Mario Trieloff kicked off Asteroid Week with public talks on meteorite impacts and space risk.
One of the highlights of Asteroid Week was the meteorite wine tasting and film screening: The Domaine du Météore winery in southern France got its name from a local peculiarity: one of its vineyards is located in a round depression 200 metres in diameter that resembles an impact crater. Until recently, the claim of a meteorite impact was used only for marketing purposes by the winery, without ever actually being confirmed. But in 2022 scientists led by cosmochemist Prof. Frank Brenker from Goethe University in Frankfurt conducted rock and soil analyses and confirmed that the crater was once actually formed by the impact of an iron-nickel meteorite. When this becomes officially confirmed, it will become the 42nd officially recognised impact crater in Europe, and the 191st worldwide. For this event, we savoured two wines from this winery, accompanied by talks from Frank Brenker and CAPAS colleague Michael Dunn.
This culinary approach was followed by a visual one. A special edition of the CAPAS Apocalyptic Cinema was arranged in order to screen Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer’s film “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds”. The film “takes viewers on an extraordinary journey to discover how shooting stars, meteorites and deep impacts have focused the human imagination on other realms and worlds, and on our past and our future.” We were glad that Clive Oppenheimer followed our invitation for a live discussion after the movie together with CAPAS fellow Duane Hamacher.
Another highlight of the week were the activities coordinated by Haus der Astronomie, such as a presentation by Richard Moissl, head of European Space Agency's Planetary Defence Office. One of the activities was reaching a very different target group. Carolin Liefke, Natalie Fischer, and Esther Kolar organized a kids and family event. Children and parents could explore the world of asteroids and comets in a planetarium. They could also do practical experiments which allowed the youngest participants to try for themselves what happens when large chunks hit other celestial bodies: Impact craters are formed!
The science communication activities on astronomy, asteroids, and apocalypses did not end with Asteroid Week. The second Apocalyptic Boardgame and Roleplaying-Game Day the following week featured a number of activities, including a talk on Ecology and Games in cooperation with Kunstverein Heidelberg (art club); a workshop on analogue game design titled “Hacking the Apocalypse” by former CAPAS fellow Adrian Hermann; and a presentation on a new board game project called Habitable. Habitable is a project by students, doctoral candidates, and Post-Docs at the Heidelberg Institute of Theoretical Studies (HITS), which is funded by the competitive scholarship program “Hochschulwettbewerb”, also part of the year of science. The team researches in the field of astronomy, and are employing the unique science communication approach of developing a boardgame based on habitable (and inhabitable) planets. They joined the game day not only with a presentation on their project, but also with a prototype of their game for play testing.
Furthermore, as part of the year of science, a mobile planetarium known as the Roadshow Universe on Tour which was travelling throughout Germany made a tour stop in Heidelberg. As part of the accompanying programme, Duane Hamacher contributed with a talk on his book The First Astronomers: How Indigenous Elders Read the Stars. On the same day, the Open-Air Apocalyptic Cinema screened the 1951 science fiction movie When Worlds Collide, with a scientific commentary by Richard Wilman.
Within this wide range of activities, CAPAS brought together astronomers and apocalypse scholars, wine and science, researchers and the public, and a wide range of perspectives and discussions. From all the activities and intermixing of ideas, even more ideas were created during the summer of 2023 – so maybe there is something after the end of the universe.