UA Astrophysicist Named to Cultural Organization

UA Astrophysicist Named to Cultural Organization

By Jeff HarrisonUniversity Communications
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Jarita Holbrook
Jarita Holbrook

Jarita Holbrook, a research scientist in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at The University of Arizona, has been elected as vice president of the European Society for Astronomy in Culture.

Holbrook was chosen at the group's symposium on Sept. 12 in Granada, Spain, where she presented a paper on "African Cosmology and Creation Myths." 

Holbrook studies the many ways in which astronomy and culture intersect in Africa, focusing on how Africans use the sky, as well as their attitudes about the sky and how their artwork represents the sky. She is the editor of "African Cultural Astronomy," from Springer Press. Her current research extends beyond Africa to Europe, North America and the Pacific and the loss of sky knowledge. She has recently completed a manuscript, "Following the Stars," on the contemporary use of the stars for navigation.

Holbrook has embarked on a second career as an anthropologist of science following her work as an astrophysicist. She previously worked on projects at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, observing on telescopes at Mount Palomar and Mount Laguna in California, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Mount Lemmon in Arizona and the Hubble Space Telescope. Before coming to the UA in 2002, Holbrook was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. In 2007 she organized a conference in Ghana that coincided with a total solar eclipse viewed in that region since the 1940s.

"I consider myself to be a cultural astronomer and I interrogate astronomy on two levels," Holbrook said. "First, how does the sky fit into our natural environment in terms of environmental adaptation and the shaping of human culture? Secondly, I think about why academic astronomy is not more diverse. Most of my students explore the latter question, while the majority of my research is on the former."

Holbrook said he will travel to the United Kingdom later this year as part of her study of pagans and their use of archaeoastronomy sites on the summer solstice.

She also plans to take a group of students to the Marshall Islands for the total solar eclipse on July 22.

Holbrook graduated with a degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology and has a master's degree in astronomy from San Diego State University. She earned her doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Holbrook is only the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate in astrophysics in the United States.

Most recently, the International Year of Astronomy 2009 USA (IYA2009 USA) appointed Holbrook as chair of the Working Group on Cultural Astronomy and Storytelling. She is a council member of the International Society for the Study of Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture and the National Society of Black Physicists.

The European Society for Astronomy in Culture is a professional association of scientists working in the field of astronomy in culture or anthropological astronomy, including the interdisciplinary disciplines of archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy.

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