IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Duane HamacherIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Duane Hamacher

Duane Hamacher is Associate Professor of Cultural Astronomy in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne, Australia. His research focuses on the intersection of science and culture, specifically Indigenous astronomical and geological knowledges in Australia and around the world. A particular area of his interest examines the role of meteorite impacts in human history and their influence on society and cultural traditions.


What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

I was both shocked and excited. A few years earlier, I spent time at the University of Nantes studying the end of the world, and this fellowship seemed right up my alley. It was during the last of the multi-month covid lockdowns in Melbourne. In a state of lockdown, I wanted to see what was happening in Europe regarding fellowships. After running into the advertisement for fellowships online, I was intrigued to say the least. I noticed the deadline was the next day, so I sat down a wrote the entire proposal that evening. I was surprised and elated when I received the acceptance letter.

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?

Although ‘apocalypse’ has deep religious connotations, I tend to think of it in more colloquial terms as a major catastrophic event that pushes humanity to the brink. Perhaps it is something from which we can recover if we learn important lessons, or it can drive us towards the end of everything we know – often as a result of our collective selfishness. The “end” may be localised or global, or it may be something we experience within ourselves.

What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?

Surviving “death from the skies” is a common trope in literature and cinema. It is also a reality that we face. Cultural traditions across the globe from the earliest times link the appearance of comets as portents of doom and the fall of meteorites as signs of divine punishment. The impact of an asteroid could snuff-out our very existence, just as it did with the dinosaurs. But it is also something we can actively prevent if we focus our attention on surveying the solar system for potentially hazardous objects and finding ways to deflect them. My work examines the relationship between comets/asteroids and their influence on society, religion, Indigenous cosmology, and modern science. What can our interactions with these celestial objects tell us about our connection to the cosmos? What can we learn by studying the cultural and scientific history of these objects and their cataclysmic impacts with Earth? How can we use these lessons to teach the public about the exciting crossroads of science and culture?

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?

I have been gifted with a lifelong passion for astronomy since childhood. My university education focused on astrophysics, and I have always maintained an interest in comets and asteroids. For the last 15 years, I have been exploring the connection between humans and the stars, primarily through collaborations with Indigenous elders across Australia. My research revealed that humans have long witnessed and lived through catastrophic natural events, almost all of which have had special significance and meaning attributed to them. By learning about these experiences, we can better understand how to evade, avert, or survive natural disasters, such as meteorite impacts. We can also use this information to guide scientific research and provide a framework for public education through science communication. The CAPAS fellowship perfectly aligns to that in every way.

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

Working with a diverse team of scholars from a wide range of disciplines opens all sorts of new avenues for discussing and debating new ideas. Blossoming in a trans-disciplinary environment like CAPAS enables us to tackle new and challenging ways of approaching our research that we might never consider on our own. It provides us with a golden opportunity to broaden our horizons, deepen our knowledge base, strengthen our skillset, and grapple with some of the most challenging questions humanity faces today. This drives us to produce innovative scholarship that changes the very way we think about our place in the world. As a CAPAS Fellow, this experience will push me to grow as a scholar. More importantly, it encourages me to re-evaluate my own place in the universe.

What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS?

As a scientist working in the social sciences, my knowledge is quite broad in scope but certainly lacking in certain areas. My work in particular crosses a surprising number of academic fields, but there is no way I can be an expert in them all. At times, trying to maintain expertise in one is challenging enough! It is an exciting opportunity to work with the team of scholars at CAPAS, many of whom have deep knowledge in the humanities and social theory – areas in which I have little or no experience but lots of excitement to engage. It is a rewarding yet humbling experience to listen and learn about topics that seem alien to me. The conversations that drive these discussions are invaluable. My CAPAS colleagues have become my teachers, and I hope I am able to return the privilege.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?

You will need something for protection, procurement, and survival. For protection, you will need a weapon, but one that is robust and will not malfunction or break easily. I suggest going with the Butch’s weapon of choice in Pulp Fiction. As for procurement, you will need something to help you build shelter and find food. An axe is ideal, which double as a weapon. Finally, for survival you need fire. Something flimsy or with a short, finite life is not very good. Ideally, the best thing is a metal fire-starter (fire striker), which sheds sparks when ignited by friction between carbon steel and flint/chert. If you have that and an axe, you are in a really good position to make it through a post-apocalyptic scenario. A Japanese sword will just be icing on the cake.

What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?

Literature: My favourite novel is The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells. The descriptions of a futuristic, pseudo-utopian world with humanity evolving into the pacifist, intellectual zombies called Eloi and the evil and dim Morlocks living in a subterranean realm resembling a post-apocalyptic world is a social commentary of social stratification. This combined with the paradox of benefit and destruction of emerging technologies is surprisingly timeless for something written in 1895.

Film: An important early silent film was The End of the World (1916) by Danish director and writer August Blom and Otto Rung. The main premise centres on social upheaval and unrest as the Earth passes through the tail of a comet. It combined the real-world fears that erupted just 6 years before when Earth travelled through the tail of Comet Halley, which saw public panic ensue as people feared life would be snuffed out.

Music: The 1983 album Construction Time Again by Depeche Mode includes a distinctly apocalyptic piece in Two Minute Warningˆ written by Alan Wilder, which paints a strange life in a post-apocalyptic world. This is not the first time the band has been linked to such imagery: their 1988 hit Never Let Me Down Again was the closing song in the post-apocalyptic season finale of The Last of Us.