Using Outer Space as a Safe Space in Your Courses

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Do you have academic questions too controversial or sensitive to discuss in your classroom? Try moving the setting off Earth. Like many instructors, I have tried to seek a balance between challenging my students and preventing them from being overwhelmed. In other words, I have sought to get them out of their comfort zone while still keeping them in a “habitable zone” (to use an astronomical term). Outer space often proved to be a safe space for outlandish ideas.

If you are a physical scientist, you probably know that the universe is a fantastic laboratory for testing your craziest hypotheses. Black holes, neutron stars, active galactic nuclei, supernovae and gamma ray bursts involve amounts of energy that could never be contained in any human-made instrument. As such, they also stretch the human imagination and push the edges of what we know. As the popularity of science fiction demonstrates, these phenomena also easily inspire young and old.

Life Outside Earth

However, even if your areas of interest are confined to Earth, it might be worth looking up to the stars on occasion. Although astrophysical models have been hotly debated among experts, biological theories, especially evolution, have been even more controversial in the public. If you are facing obstacles in teaching the origin of life on Earth, why not get your students to think about the possible development of lifeforms on other planets? Astronomers have detected over five thousand bodies orbiting stars outside of our solar system. They offer a wide range of environments for the adaptation of different organisms. Moreover, alien worlds also challenge your students to think more fundamentally about what life is and could look like.

If some astrobiological questions seem very theoretical and distant, others could become of more practical and immediate relevance as our exploration of the solar system continues. Should we send astronauts to Mars, where they might contaminate the environment with viruses and bacteria from Earth? Should we allow them come to back from another habitable world and bring possible alien pathogens with them? What are the ethics of dealing with extraterrestrial lifeforms, especially intelligent ones? The latter question could excite learners not just in a biology class, but also in a theology seminar.

Dealing with the Alien Other

Humanities scholars and social scientists typically concentrate on human societies. However, they too find the discussion of extraterrestrial matters worthwhile. If human evolution has been a political flashpoint for biologists, the same is true for human conflict when it comes to historians or political scientists. When moving through contested landscapes, like those of Israel and Palestine, many teachers have found it very controversial to talk about racism and colonialism. Even experts on the Middle East have reported self-censorship on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

If you find the topic of settler-colonialism too unsettling for your students, why not move the location far away? You may want to ask them about their opinions on settlements in outer space and on other planets. What are the ethics of colonizing another world? Should humans build colonies on Mars, not least so that we could survive a possible end of life on Earth? Or should we first work towards peace on Earth before attempting to conquer space? You could arguably employ insights from postcolonial scholarship as easily in lectures about other globes as in presentations about the Global South, but with more freedom and perhaps also more productively.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

In order to draw connections between life on Earth and elsewhere in the cosmos, you probably want to draw on multiple disciplines. Astrobiology itself is an interdisciplinary field, combining astronomy, biology and chemistry. If you are not an astrobiologist yourself, maybe you can invite one as a guest speaker to your course (perhaps via videoconference).

Alternatively, you can find science fiction a useful type of course material. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune”, and the franchise it started, contains sophisticated explorations of ecology, environmentalism and imperialism and numerous references to Middle Eastern and Islamic cultures. They include the concept of “jihad,” yet another sensitive topic in many classrooms. Yet, your students would probably not be afraid to discuss “Dune” in front of their classmates. In fact, they would probably enjoy it and simultaneously learn valuable lessons about science and society.

Jörg Matthias Determann teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He has published numerous books and articles on the history of science in the Middle East and is co-editor of the recently published “Islamic Theology and Extraterrestrial Life: New Frontiers in Science and Religion.” He can be reached at [email protected].



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