Steele Professor, Astronomy, Caltech, USA Meets the Kogi in London

July 13, 2011

“My meeting at the University of London Observatory with Mama Shibulata was certainly a memorable occasion.

I am a professional astronomer who observes the distant Universe using large ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope.  How could a senior representative of the Kogi tribe in the remote mountains of Colombia possibly appreciate how astronomers try to determine the history of the Universe via astronomical observations? And what, if anything, could I possibly learn from this mysterious individual, someone  with little experience of the modern world and contemporary scientific methods?

Stymied by our inability to communicate through conversation, under a modest telescope in small dome alongside the Watford Way in Mill Hill,  I unfurled a colour poster of the `Hubble Deep Field’ – a spectacular image of a tiny portion of the night sky representing tens of hours of exposure time with Hubble Space Telescope’s powerful optical camera. The picture reveals a wondrous spash of hundreds of colourful tiny galaxies, exquisite in their miniature irregular forms, seen as they were far back in time towards our cosmic origins. The image has, in fact, become an icon in our subject.

Shibulata considered the image and seemed, at first,  unimpressed; perhaps bewildered and afraid to reveal his ignorance. Then, surprisingly, he outstretched his hand and pointed definitively to an object in the image and uttered an unintelligible remark. Out of several hundred sources, he had located one of only two foreground stars  in our Milky Way. The Hubble Deep Field was purposely chosen to be largely absent of foreground stars. But, with no training, Shibulata found one of them very quickly.

Impressed, I asked our Kogi translater, Sylvestre, what did Shibulate think his chosen source might represent. Correctly, Shibulata declared it was a star but not one that could be seen with the naked eye. [In fact the star would not been seen with even a moderately powerful telescope such as could be afforded by even a wealthy amateur!]. Furthermore, Shibulata declared he had already known of the existence of this star!

Alan Eireira grasped excitedly at this remark. What could it possibly mean? How could Shibulata possibly have known of this faint star revealed only in this deep Hubble Space Telescope image? Through more interrogation we learned that the Kogi are aware of the existence of stars whose brightnesses lie beyond reach of the naked eye. Indeed, we learned they are categorized on a scale of 1 through 9. Shibulata was most likely speaking metaphorically that here was visual proof of their belief – something he knew must exist, even if he had not witnessed it before.

Although easy to dismiss Shibulata’s remark as one conjured to deflect a superior knowledge, the prompt nature of his response and detailed explanation surprised all of us. It got me wondering what other surprising secrets might lie in his fertile mind!”

Richard Ellis
Steele Professor
249-17 Astronomy
Caltech, Pasadena
California, USA