Placing Outer Space

An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds

Placing Outer Space

Experimental Futures

More about this series

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 38 illustrations Published: September 2016

Author: Lisa Messeri

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Geography, Science and Technology Studies

In Placing Outer Space Lisa Messeri traces how the place-making practices of planetary scientists transform the void of space into a cosmos filled with worlds that can be known and explored. Making planets into places is central to the daily practices and professional identities of the astronomers, geologists, and computer scientists Messeri studies. She takes readers to the Mars Desert Research Station and a NASA research center to discuss ways scientists experience and map Mars. At a Chilean observatory and in MIT's labs she describes how they discover exoplanets and envision what it would be like to inhabit them. Today’s planetary science reveals the universe as densely inhabited by evocative worlds, which in turn tells us more about Earth, ourselves, and our place in the universe.


"To become an exoplanet scientist, Messeri shows (in part by undergoing some training herself), is to learn to see and convey these abstractions as something more relatable — as ­'super-Earths' or 'mini-Neptunes' or such. 'To excite the community about a particular visualization,' as Messeri nicely puts it, 'is to convince them that the image contains a world.' And to really excite the community, presumably, is to convince them that a world contains little green men." — James Ryerson, New York Times Book Review

"The book is truly focused on an understanding of scientific culture, but also illuminates fascinating details of the research typically excluded from most books that report the results of this type of research. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above; faculty and professionals."
  — C. Palma, Choice

"Placing Outer Space is a welcome addition to the literature on planetary science. Not only has Messeri achieved what has eluded so many writers—putting humans at the center of the account—she has also succeeded in crafting a compelling narrative of discovery." — Matthew Shindell, Physics Today

"Messeri’s book is an excellent addition to both the increasing scholarship concerning the cosmos in science and technology studies and the resurgent field of outer space anthropology. Her thorough analysis of place-making practices by an often insulated community is accompanied by her vivid and absorbing ethnographic writing. Placing Outer Space is an excellent example of academic writing that is supremely beneficial and accessible to both the academy and the public" — Taylor R. Genovese, LSE Review of Books

"This book is a fascinating look at how astronomers and planetary scientists conceive of places in space. Space anthropologist Messeri discusses the way that those scientists most engaged in thinking about life in the universe grapple with a sense of place, from Mars to planets and other stars." — Lucianne Walkowicz,

"This well-written book offers an inside look at a field so many of us find fascinating, taking the reader on the scientist’s journey of 'planetary imagining' and what this means for the future." — Glynn Custred, Academic Questions

"Messeri is to be commended for crafting an engaging account that is fully accessible to an outside audience. Her beautiful ethnographic narrative and clear applications of theory make her readers feel comfortable. . . . For anthropologists attempting to pen a scholarly monograph that engages both the broader public and the community they study, this is a worthy example." — Janet Vertesi, American Anthropologist

"Placing Outer Space is a succinct and intriguing book that holds universes between its pages . . . [It] should be read by all students of anthropology and cultural studies regardless of their subfields because it shows the mechanisms of ethnography and anthropological theories at their best." — Younes Saramifar, Social Anthropology

"Lisa Messeri's spirit of adventurous ethnographic contact carries the day, delivering new insights into off-Earth explorations by experts and amateurs alike. In bringing us, up close, to those engaged in fashioning new home worlds and remapping the cosmos, Messeri urges us to follow the future making. That enterprise is in good hands." — Debbora Battaglia, American Ethnologist

"A thoughtful investigation of planetary science. . . . Students of the history of science and astronomy will find many new ideas here that are worth pondering." — Maria Lane, Journal of Anthropological Research

"A first-rate example of ethnographic research into the epistemological frameworks that shape the work of astronomers engaged in planetary science. Messeri has produced a superb discussion of how scientists move the unfamiliar into the realm of the familiar." — John W. Traphagan, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Part cosmic travelogue, part scholarly analysis, in Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds, Lisa Messeri refreshingly interprets the planetary scientist's methods and tools and orbs-of-interest through the lens of a curious anthropologist. From there we gain insight into who we really are as explorers, and what motivates our endless search for worlds beyond." — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History

"There is something almost quixotic in scientists' work to make remote-sensed data into not only signals but places. It is lovely; and at the same time problematic. Lisa Messeri poignantly renders all of this palpable at once. Rich with ethnographic detail, Placing Outer Space makes a decided contribution to discussions in anthropology and science studies on outer space and alien worlds and to classic discussions of the significance of 'fieldwork,' 'immersion,' and the dialectic between the strange and familiar in knowledge production." — Timothy Choy, author of Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong

"Placing Outer Space traces the scientific contours of interstellar dreams, where hints of distant planets open up the magical possibilities of other worlds. Lisa Messeri is an outstanding guide to this outer terrain of human ingenuity, and her terrestrial adventures through research sites demonstrate how the universe becomes all the more interesting as it grows familiar. In searching for exoplanets, humans rediscover their own world, learning to see both earth and sky in newly intimate ways." — Peter Redfield, author of Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana


Availability: In stock
Price: $25.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lisa Messeri is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. From Outer Space to Outer Place  1
1. Narrating Mars in Utah's Desert  25
2. Mapping Mars in Silicon Valley  71
3. Visualizing Alien Worlds  111
4. Inhabiting Other Earths  149
Conclusion. Navigating the Infinite Cosmos  189
Notes  197
References  211
Index  231
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top