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An Interview with Susan Murabana (Part Four)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/09/08


Susan Murabana is an Astronomer and Rotarian, and Founder of the Travelling Telescope. She discusses: Galileo Galilei and Copernicus; dark matter and dark energy; the most common question from children for the Travelling Telescope; critical thinking for the young; Kenyan sociocultural barriers to the education of science; science’s epistemology; the privileged place of religion in Kenya; a unified front for science education in Africa; The Clergy Project; and United Church of Canada, and religious parents and children.

Keywords: astronomer, Rotarian, Susan Murabana, Travelling Telescope.

Interview with Susan Murabana: Astronomer and Rotarian, and Founder, Travelling Telescope (Part Four)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You mentioned Galileo Galilee as a personal hero to you. He has that famous phrase E pur si muove – “it still moves,” after his being imprisoned in his household even after they showed the people trying him the telescope and showing them… Was it Saturn’s moons? Or Jupiter’s moons?

There are other examples of that. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake partly for positing many other galaxies and stars and planets, but also because he rejected the Trinity and the Church was not too hot on that. Also, who was the geocentricism to heliocentrism?

Susan Murabana: Copernicus.

Jacobsen: Copernicus, I think it was in Copernicus’ texts; I think in his acknowledgments he had Aristophanes who had posited a long time ago, but did not necessarily have the scientific backing for the laws. So, we have this trend of considered basic facts that aren’t with further or future scientific discovery.

So, we go from as you noted early in the interview, from a geocentric or Earth-centric view to an helio-centered or sun-centered view of “the universe.” Then we go from a solar system to a galaxy that has 100, 200 million stars and then that many galaxies.

What is another idea that is widely accepted now that you think might go the way of geocentricism or things of that nature?

Murabana: Wow, I do not know what to say but to talk about, it is one of my good examples, the fact that we have the atom smasher and stuff like that. We thought the solar system was this big then we realized we belong to this galaxy. We are not even at the centre of the galaxy and there are many galaxies and billions of stars.

Now, maybe, there are more than one universe and stuff like that. I do not know how to answer your question. I would have to think about it.

2. Jacobsen: There is the big question about the nature of 96% of the universe, by which I mean dark matter and dark energy. What are they? Why are they hard to both detect and categorize in relevance to the other 4%? What we are made of, the ordinary matter that we are made of.

Murabana: The stuff we know and can account for and there is some we do not know. Let me think about it a bit longer.

3. Jacobsen: What is the most common question that children give to the Travelling Telescope team?

Murabana: At some point, the most common question is why Pluto is not a planet anymore.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] oh no.

Murabana: Obviously, with New Horizons, it is interesting to talk to them about it because there is a lot being discovered. What other question do they like asking? Yes, I think that’s one of the most common questions that comes across, about Pluto. I told you we do a song with the kids and we almost did a Pluto song. I think we came up with the lyrics for the song.

I feel like young kids identify with Pluto because Pluto is the smallest or was the smallest planet in our solar system until we reclassified it as a dwarf planet. That’s part of the reason they ask the question. Another question that comes up a lot is what a black hole is. That is another common question we get. I am sure there are others, but I cannot think of them right now.

Another question they ask is, “Have you ever been to space?” [Laughing] People confuse astronomy and astrology a lot. It feels like we’ve gone to schools and sometimes we are introduced as astrologists and we must explain to them what astrology is and that it is not astronomy. The most common I think I can remember is black holes, but one of the most common is why Pluto is no longer a planet. Why it was declassified?

4. Jacobsen: Your example of being assumed astrologers when you’re coming in as astronomers, recalls for me critical tinkling. It would be akin to inviting the “Travelling Chemistry,” let’s say, and then going to the classroom and being introduced as alchemists [Laughing].

In that sense, what is the importance of critical thinking especially at a young age?

Murabana: That’s a good question. I think it is important at a young age because the whole idea of trying to think and use the scientific approach as a way of getting solutions. Questioning and then experimenting and then deducing, coming up with a result. I think critical thinking is important at a young age.

5. Jacobsen: Within Kenya, what are some sociocultural barriers to the education of science? I am not sure if I asked that question already, but I think that’s important.

Murabana: Religion prevents it in my opinion. I feel that sometimes, a person’s economic status. Another thing is to try to encourage experiments with readily available materials. But sometimes, I get the feeling that because people belong in a certain area or kids are in a certain area feel they cannot do certain experiments because they do not have access to money or resources to get different materials. That influences it.

Another thing is knowledge. I do not know how to put it. Some are not quite used to computers. They shy off from that. They wouldn’t use computers because they do not feel confident. So, some activities we do are computer based. We could get rejection from certain groups of people because they do not feel confident.

With their teachers, we’ve gotten good reception. In some cases, we find it difficult. One of the most common questions for teachers is where we place the creation theory when we talk about.

It is like religion, not science. Sometimes it happens.

6. Jacobsen: In a way, it seems to come down to me to a different epistemology, a different way of knowing in other words. A supernaturalistic epistemology looks for things unseen. Science comes from natural philosophy, by which I mean science as a proper branch of philosophy, based in looking for natural causes through natural means.

Therefore, naturalism, naturalistic epistemology, which is science, will come up with natural answers and if you’re dealing with different epistemologies, you’ll come up with different answers. It happens that we live in the natural world insofar as that’s what natural science teaches us.

So, we come up with evolutionary theory, the table of elements, continental drift, plate tectonics, the big bang, and so on, rather than the world is 6,000-to-10,000-years-old based on Bishop James Ussher counting all the ages in the Bible. I can see that.

Murabana: Kenya is a religious society. A good number of Kenyans are either Muslims or Christians. Religion is a big thing in school as well. Most schools either push a lot of Christianity or Islam, so we do not want to go there and make the school feel that we are disrespectful of their beliefs. It is normally an uncomfortable situation, especially if the teacher is asking about the creation stories in the presence of kids.

It is a whole different topic, I guess. Sometimes, I feel an instance of social culture or obviously the other cultural interests. I cannot think of that right now. Some teachers are good in the sense that culturally, they collected traditional sky knowledge from the older generations and sometimes you get kids that are trying to go back to their parents or grandparents to try and collect traditional sky knowledge.

I guess to feel that connection of us with the sky. Maybe one day, we’ll get some scientific knowledge or scientific proof from what was traditionally done in connection to the sky. It is exciting.

7. Jacobsen: Based on what you’re saying, my interpretation, and I want you to correct me if I am wrong please, is in Kenya religion does have a privileged place.

If I am understanding you correctly, within Kenya, and within other countries, of course, religion has a privileged place in that the religious practitioners and teachers can give that education to kids based in a specific religious belief system whereas those that have an irreligious system of operating in the world, cannot. That, therefore, means a double standard.

Murabana: I feel that it is complicated in my view because they do learn science and that’s more education. We have an astronomer talking about the big bang theory and things like that and he lied to the classroom and that’s it. When you try to question it, all the other things come in and one of the main influences is religion.

I do not know if it is still taught in the classroom, but they still learn about astronomy and things like that. Teachers try to be as correct as possible and they are open to the Travelling Telescope team or when other experts come on board.

But sometimes religion and the creation theory come into play because these are two different theories trying to explain how we came into existence. Especially if we talk about how the Sun has existed all this time, or the Sun is a star and will grow old and die eventually. Things like that as part of questions about the creation theory and things like that.

It is interesting because as you say, science is about things that have been proven or are consistent. Religion is more personal, and it is hard to try and have arguments when it is on a personal level. Kenya is a religious country in the sense you have huge Christian and Muslim communities.

Some of the schools are built from funding from the Church or the Muslim community. We go to these schools and teach these kids and it is gone most of the time. We feel we’ve left an impact. On one or two occasions, we get those questions.

8. Jacobsen: Is there an overarching organization to unite either regions of the continent of Africa or all of them together? Are there associations among organizations? So, a collective?

Your own organization or others that come together to teach astronomy, science, all these things under one banner to make operations more effective and coherent across a larger range of activities and places?

Murabana: Africa now, we have the Office of Astronomy for Development, which is an international astronomy community office. The key thing is to do outreach everywhere in the world, but it is being helpful in Africa. We have that office based in South Africa and there are regional offices. One is in East Africa, one in West Africa, one in Southern Africa, and I do not know if there is one in North Africa but that’s the biggest body, which is such a huge resource for everyone.

I know quite several people across Africa who are doing outreach in astronomy using different organizations, but we are all able to meet or connect through the Office of Astronomy for Development. There are other organizations like Astronomer’s without Borders or Global Hands (?) and the Universe Awareness which are mostly global.

There is an African Astronomical Society which was created to connect astronomers across the continent. It is also difficult the do cross Africa. Movement from West Africa to East Africa is expensive, so coordinating our meetings for everyone is normally difficult. It hasn’t quite survived.

They also have the East African Astronomical Society, which has meetings almost every year. So, there are many different bodies. We all seem to communicate. This year, we went to Tanzania for an annual eclipse. We traveled there to try and do outreach, but we were able to meet up with the astronomers there. The outreach people from Universe Awareness. We joined them and were a big group. Having that connection is good globally, but especially within Africa.

Jacobsen: I think we have covered everything [Laughing]. I do not know if I have any other questions.

Murabana: Cool. It has been interesting talking to you.

Jacobsen: Thank you.

Murabana: I do not have all the answers and I probably drifted away but it is interesting, and you made me think about certain things differently or probably try to go back and think about certain things. It is being an interesting interview and I enjoyed it.

9. Jacobsen: Thank you much I appreciate that. It is mutual. There are other topics that come to mind. I want to be mindful of your time. There is a philosopher in the United States called Daniel Dennett from Tufts University.

He and this one woman got together. And they did this research project, and called it The Clergy Project. I was talking to her on the phone because she wanted to say, “Hi,” before we did the interview.

Basically, they have these ministers and pastors and priests and so on, who are still giving sermons and they do not believe anymore. They haven’t believed in a long time, but they are still giving sermons.

Murabana: There are some priests who do not believe in it anymore?

Jacobsen: They are atheists. Some of them.

Murabana: [Laughing] what? That’s interesting.

Jacobsen: One person did come out and, as you might predict, social and professional suicide. They lost everything. They were fired the day after. Their family. They did not talk to them, nothing. They lost everything, by coming out.

Murabana: Why?

Jacobsen: Because they came out as atheists.

Murabana: They said they were atheists and that was it?

Jacobsen: That was it. The person who said it confided in a colleague and that colleague told the higher-ups in the Church system.

Murabana: Is that in the US or…?

10. Jacobsen: …That was in the US, but I have talked to another woman. I did not know this. So, Toronto and Vancouver are the big cities in Canada. I am in Vancouver.

I was reading the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star, and there is an article about the United Church of Canada, which is a liberal church. Probably the most liberal church, like almost nothing is literal in the text when reading it. It is more often about metaphor and life lessons through parable, tale, metaphor, analogy, and narratives.

Basically, going back to original Gospel readings, preaching love and forgiveness and neighborliness, not so bad, a proactive Golden Rule. Basically, you’re reading a text by John Stuart Mill.

This woman whose name is Minister Gretta Vosper. She came out as, I think, it was a deist and then came out as non-supernaturalistic, non-theist, and then recently she came out as an atheist.

Her congregation was totally cool with it. They did not care. But after that, recently in September the United Church of Canada has set up a review board based on complaints, not from the congregation, but from the higher ups that they have an atheist in their ranks. Who woulda thunk?

Basically, people have an issue with it. So, I talked to her in the middle of it and she is under a lot of pressure. She is part of that same Clergy Project. She is one of the few that are open. The others know that if they leave that, they lose everything.

In a lot of cases, that’s why I was bringing up the questions about religion having a privileged place because they have full access to kids. Richard Dawkins made this point where he compared it by analogy to the 60s and 70s women’s rights movement in the United States where it was consciousness raising, especially for men – changing the terminology.

Not “mankind” but “humankind,” things like that. One that he pointed out was by example. His example, and I am paraphrasing, is you look at a picture and see three children. In the newspaper, it will say, here is Mark, Taylor, and Tyler. Mark the Muslim child, Taylor the Christian child, and Tyler the Jewish child.

No one has any problem with that. Then he says, “Okay, let’s see if we do the same thing as with religion but we do it politically.” Same children, same picture, but here are 3 children Mark, Taylor, and Tyler.

Mark the Libertarian child, Taylor the Republican child, and Tyler Keynesian child, and it immediately becomes funny because children, for the most part, are too young to have read and considered a serious economic theory to have a standardized position on what economic theory works best.

Yet, we assume a child by being born in a household, a parent, usually a male head of the household – that’s how these things work generally – or both parents, to be the religion of the parents. I would apply this to irreligion as well: that, therefore, those children have those beliefs as well.

It would be akin to parents having a political view and then the children having that view. In Canada, we have that same thing where we have free access in providing the parents’ beliefs to the children.

You do not have a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish child. You have Christian, Muslim, or Jewish parents with a child or children with Jewish, Christian, or Muslim parents. That was a big consciousness raising moment for me. I think for others in a lot of cases too.

Murabana: That’s interesting.

Jacobsen: You mentioned heroes. We’ve talked about most things under or about the Sun. The only other things I’d probably ask are: who is a favourite philosopher? Do you have any recommended books? Those would probably be the last two.

Murabana: The Cosmos. I think that’s big. Favourite philosopher? I am not so much of a favourite person, I cannot figure that out [Laughing]. I struggle to think of favourites. But yes, Cosmos, good book.

I think Neil deGrasse Tyson and the remake of Cosmos is also good. When we show kids in schools, it is well done. He’s a good communicator. It is graphic in that sense. Every time I have an interview. I am asked a favourite something. I am not that person who has a favourite colour, favourite this, favourite that. I need to work on that.

Jacobsen: Thank you much for your time, I appreciate the interview.

Murabana: Thank you so much, I know it is been several emails and checking and everything. It is good, getting interviewed by someone in Canada. Thank you for the persistence and for giving me an audience.

Jacobsen: You’re welcome.

Murabana: So, have a good day.

11. Jacobsen: Okay, thank you much for your time, I appreciate all the good work.

Murabana: Thanks, bye, bye.

Jacobsen: Bye.


  1. Travelling Telescope. (2018). Travelling Telescope. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Astronomer; Founder, Travelling Telescope; Rotarian.

[2] Individual Publication Date: September 8, 2018:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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