A new documentary ‘Nostalgia for the light’ has just been released. It’s a Chilean documentary about the development of astronomical observatories in that country throughout the 70s and 80s, at the same time as the Pinochet regime was persecuting thousands of people and incarcerating them in concentration camps. Some of these camps were in the Atacama desert, not far from the observatories, and the documentary contrasts the search by astronomers for scientific truths with the search by desperate families for their disappeared relatives.
Chile is one of the best countries in the world for astronomy because of the combination of high altitude desert and absence of light pollution. European astronomers first decided to build an observatory there in the 50s, and this year the European Southern Observatory (ESO) celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. ESO expanded rapidly in the 70s – during the Pinochet regime. Other countries such as the USA and Canada also set up observatories in Chile at the same time. The UK was not an official member of ESO until 2002 but prior to that, British astronomers could use the facilities. I went there a couple of times when I was a student.
This juxtaposition of astronomy and politics in Chile is not something that gets discussed much – by astronomers. The official history of ESO only briefly mentions Pinochet, and then only to record the astronomers’ gratitude for his protection of the site of the observatory from land claims by mining companies.
When I went there, ESO always felt like a colonial set-up. The astronomers were all European, and the support staff were all Chilean. There was only a handful of Chilean astronomers. On arrival at Santiago and before the trip up north to the Observatory at La Silla, the astronomers stayed at a large villa in one of the most exclusive suburbs. The lawn was manicured, the servants at the villa wore smart black and white uniforms and us astronomers felt uneasily aware of the vast gulf between our experiences and those of the people living in the shanty town near the airport. Politics felt like a taboo subject, even after Pinochet stepped down. Plenty of people still supported him and we were advised not to talk about the regime.
There is still nothing on ESO’s website about the observatory’s activities during Pinochet’s regime, and no official acknowledgement or discussion about the role that an international community of scientists might play in normalising a brutal anti-democratic regime.
Until fairly recently I didn’t know about the camps in the desert, but I have written about them now; there is a bit in my novel about the naivety of European astronomers in Chile which is also the subject of a short story on Lablit, as well as a poem which will be published in this year’s ‘New Writing Scotland’ anthology.