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In Search Of… S04E13 The Dark Star

Dogon artwork from In Search Of S04E13 The Dark Star
Trippy.

We open on African ritual dancers and a driving rhythm of drums. Nimoy informs us that the dance has meaning, which of course is true. It's a dance of religious significance, so Nimoy is correct when he tells us that it depicts the relationship of the dancers to the heavens. However, he claims that that it maps that relationship 'precisely', and straight away I am worried. Next we're looking at something in a cave and being told that this tribe believes it comes from a distant star, and then we're looking at a radio telescope.

I don't know where we're going this episode, but I'm guessing it will be weird, and also at least a little insulting. Sure enough, we're asked how a 'primitive' people found a 'dark star'.

Now we're looking at a bunch of African folks, who we are told are the Dogon people. They've lived where they do for a thousand years, having fled there from their enemies. Oh, and they know where an invisible star is. The footage is quite good, but the narration really hammers this 'sacred star', so clearly it's the only aspect of Dogon culture we're interested in.

We're shown a cave drawing of a circle within a circle. Nimoy assures us that this is Saturn, but that Saturn's rings can't be seen without a telescope. I'm unclear how they know it's meant to be Saturn, since a circle within a circle is a fairly common symbol across cultures. Looks kind of like an eye, you know. Or a nipple. Just saying.

The electronic music soars as we look at more cave pictures. One has a circle and four little circles around it, like 'Jupiter and its moons'. Four of its fifty-plus moons, I guess. Another circle, we are assured, represents a star that is invisible to the naked eye but recently discovered by western astronomers. How is this possible, Nimoy asks?

Now we move into a very cute little potted documentary about the Dogon. It's a little patronising, but basically very pro-Dogon. Some footage of a Dogon dispute resolution meeting is surprisingly interesting, but then we get into the usual 'tribal people are in sync with the universe' thing that we've seen over and over in this series. A lot about the Dogon love of order and harmony, and some very cool footage of weaving and agriculture.

Now, in comes Dr Hans Guggenheim, who talks about the link between Dogon grain production and Dogon astronomy. This is not unreasonable at all. Working out planting and harvesting seasons based on the stars is quite a common feature of agricultural societies. In fact, Nimoy says this very thing as soon as I've written it down. We watch a Dogon elder making careful solar observations for just this purpose. Nimoy points out that as desert dwellers, accurate timing is even more essential to the Dogon to many other people… and now Nimoy is asking whether the astronomer can sense objects deep in space.

Some interestingly weird stuff about the Dogon high priest, who may not be touched by man or woman. Some other Dogon men are doing something, while Nimoy tells us that the Dogon religion talks of visitors from an unseen star who arrived bearing symbols. Oh, the men are painting the symbols. We're told that these symbols reveal 'an infinite number of stars and spiralling worlds'. To prove this, we see that the men have drawn a circle.

Dr Guggenheim talks about the Dogon creation myth, which does include mention of a mysterious star, and goes on to identify this star as Sirius B. Nimoy tells us that the Dogon star was discovered by western astronomers in the 1950s.

I can't help thinking that we're missing a step here.

At the US Naval observatory, Dr Iving Lindenblad is introduced as the man who discovered the dark star, though all he talks about is discovering Sirius B. I wonder if they even told him what the interview was for.

Now we're in Africa again, being assured that the Dogon people believe that their sacred star collapsed in upon itself becoming super dense. And we're back in the US again, at the San Fernando observatory, talking to Dr Gary Chapman. Shots of old time computers. Can't get enough shots of old timey computers. Dr Chapman tells us that Sirius B is out of nuclear fuel and collapsed in on itself.

Which is nice. Up until now, they'd given us absolutely no reason why we should believe that Sirius B and the Dogon star are the same thing. This is literally the first attempt In Search Of has made to explain why they're the same thing. Now we look at some other Dogon cave art, which Nimoy assures us is actually a very detailed and accurate depiction of the galaxy, and also that the Dogon discovered the circulation of blood.

I'm going to pause here a minute. I don't have a problem with the idea of tribal people having a great deal of astronomical knowledge. I don't have a problem with the idea of tribal people believing in blood circulation. The scientific method is great, but humans figured a whole lot out before anyone even thought of it. If what this show was trying to do was ask some question about how we generate knowledge about physical reality, I'd say it was worthwhile. I don't see the connection, exactly, between this cave art and advanced astronomical knowledge, but I'd be fascinated to hear the argument.

But.

That's not where we're going, is it? We all know that. We're going to hear how the Dogon were given this information by aliens. Sure enough, Nimoy now starts to talk about the messengers from the dark star. Nimoy draws a distinction between generic mythological 'messengers from the heavens' and the Dogon story in which the messengers came from the dark star.

Now we're looking at black-and-white footage of the Dogon, shot by French anthropologists in the 1930s. There's some wonderful shots of the making of ritual masks, but it's unclear which parts of Nimoy's narration are fact and which speculation. Spectacular shots of the 'sigi' ritual which is supposed to be a once-in-60-year ritual, carried out 'when the Dogon and their star are closest'.

We're looking at a 1970s-y scientist doing 1970s-y computer stuff, which leads to Nimoy telling us that Sirius B orbits Sirius every sixty years. Dr Guggenheim explains… something? Oh, the ellipse of Sirius B has been shown to be similar to Dogon cave paintings, I think?

Nimoy now talks about the guardians of a shrine, which will supposedly glow when it's time for the next sigi. But they also mark time by knotting string, which is interesting if the shrine will tell us itself. We see a mask that is said to come from the first sigi ritual (or, as Nimoy calls it, stellar observation) which is dated at three hundred years old.

We go back now to Dr Chapman, who asks whether the supposed Dogon knowledge of Sirius B is psychic, the work of aliens or coincidence. He, unsurprisingly, goes with coincidence. Dr Guggenheim simply proclaims it a mystery.

More footage of Dogon dancing. Nimoy points out that the sigi ritual comes every sixty years, but average Dogon lifespan is thirty eight, so most Dogon will never take part – and yet still they practice for it. The dance is pretty cool, but we fade from the circle of dancers to an ellipse drawn on a cave wall, to a computer projection of an elliptical orbit. Interestingly, all three shapes are somewhat dissimilar, rather ruining the effect.

Now some patronising stuff about the Dogon losing their ancient wisdom as their society becomes more technically advanced.

Now, I don't know much about astronomy* or Dogon religion. Before I go looking it up, I'm going to guess that this is probably one of those cherry-picking things, where the aspects of Dogon belief that coincide with western astronomy are lauded and the aspects that don't are ignored.

And looking it up… no, I'm partially wrong. Yes, there are a number of Dogon astronomical beliefs that don't mesh with current knowledge – the number of moons of Jupiter, mentioned above, being just one example. Other researchers found that the Dogon don't all have identical beliefs about their star, with some saying that it is invisible and others identifying it with Venus. And there's the very real possibility that the Dogon have knowledge of western astronomy from talking to western astronomers (who have been making observations from Dogon territory since the nineteenth century) and/or from the anthropologists who were trying to learn about Dogon astronomical beliefs by asking leading questions.

Another interesting thing that came up, is that the Dogon believe in a second star orbiting Sirius, conveniently unmentioned in the In Search Of… episode. This gives us a prediction that could be used to confirm Dogon cosmology – though so far, no one has detected this third star.

Like I say, the idea that a 'primitive' people might know more than I'd expect doesn't bother me. It probably says more about what I expect than anything else. But if (if!) the Dogon have unexpectedly detailed astronomical knowledge, my money is on them gaining that knowledge by working for it, rather than gaining it through vaguely hinted-at clairvoyance or alien encounter.

* Also don't know much history, biology, science book, French I took, etc.

Quotes

'Now we must ask how a primitive people, lacking instruments of any kind, find a dark star hidden in the depths of space.'

Summing up

Nice footage of the Dogon: 9/10, Nimoyness: 8/10, Seventies fashion: 2/10, Cave art: 7/10, Convincing argument: 3/10. Overall: 30/50 Pass

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