Published: Nov. 9, 2016
John Stocke points to the sky with a Q'ero tribe member

Growing up at the edge of the Ozarks near St. Louis, Missouri, where on a clear night the Milky Way was a brilliant swath of stars in the sky, Professor John Stocke would gaze up and wonder what was out there in—and beyond—our own galaxy.

Stocke will reveal what he has learned about the cosmos and how native cultures interpreted the stars in a talk titled Secrets of the Andean Skies. The talk will be held at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 and 12 at Fiske Planetarium on campus. The Thursday evening talk is free to CU students. For ticket information, go to the Fiske Planetarium website.

Stocke is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics and a researcher with the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at CU Boulder. His talk will reveal some of the secrets of the Inca, who were meticulous observers of the skies. They saw dark constellations and they recognized that the brightness of the Pleiades stars could tell them when to plant their crops.

"I’ve always been fascinated with the sky as a visual appearance," Stocke said. "That’s the way the ancient and indigenous cultures saw and still see the sky, so I naturally became interested in what they saw."

As an extragalactic observer, Stocke uses space-based and ground-based telescopes to study galaxies outside our own Milky Way. He uses the Hubble Space Telescope's UV spectrographs to discover, inventory and study intergalactic gas clouds to learn their relationship to galaxies and galactic evolution. A UV spectrograph is an instrument that separates light of different frequencies into a spectrum and records the signal using an ultraviolet sensitive camera. This study led to the first-ever detection of matter in voids, enormous regions of space where there are no galaxies.

Stocke has long been interested in the beliefs and practices of other cultures regarding their astronomical knowledge and its representation in the sky. He teaches an undergraduate class called Ancient Astronomies of the World, because, he says, it’s important for students to have a connection to indigenous cultures, their traditions and knowledge, and how they view the sky.

"On the first day of class I ask students what is the phase of the moon," Stocke said. "Almost nobody in our culture knows, but all indigenous peoples do. One of the motivations to have students study the astronomy of other cultures is that it broadens our understanding of who we are as human beings. What I’ve tried to do with different cultures in the class and in my studies is to look at what is unique about a culture’s view of the sky. Aboriginal cultures, for example, see dark constellations, which are shadowy shapes silhouetted against the bright Milky Way."

The Q’ero, a traditional tribe directly descended from ancient Inca, who live in one of the most remote areas high in the Peruvian Andes, are the subject of the Andean Skies program. Stocke, along with his wife, herbalist Debra St. Claire, have made three trips to the Q’ero villages. The Q’ero can predict long-term weather patterns learned by observing the Pleiades star cluster, a tradition unique to Inca descendants and to the Andes.

"They use those stars to determine when to plant crops, not by when the stars appear, but how the stars look," Stocke said. "It turns out to be quite accurate. They are also able to predict the onset of El Niño weather conditions, which change the climate drastically from year to year."

Obscured by the effects of artificial light on Earth, the Milky Way is no longer visible to 80 percent of the world’s population. Less than 200 years ago, everyone could see the arc of diffuse light in the sky we call the Milky Way. By artificially lighting our surroundings so brightly, we have lost our unfettered view of the stars, Stocke said.

"That’s a significant loss," he said. "It’s like the loss of any part of the wilderness or nature. Nowadays, if you want to find wilderness you need to travel somewhere. It’s the same with seeing the night sky. The question for our culture is, if that connection is important enough that we’re willing to do something to halt increasing 'light pollution' or not."

Stocke hopes people come away from the Andean skies program having been introduced to a new culture and with a new-found feeling of connection to the sky.

For more information about "Secrets of the Andean Skiesgo to the Fiske Planetarium website.