Science & Tech

“We come from the stars and return to the stars”

Innu astrophysicist Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, who stars in the new documentary North Star, speaks stars, science and stories with Can Geo.

  • Aug 23, 2023
  • 2,398 words
  • 10 minutes

Footsteps crunch quietly on twigs, as Laurie Rousseau-Nepton makes her careful way through the forests surrounding Ashuapmushuan, Que. She pauses, she listens, she looks. It was her father who taught her how to observe the patterns of her environment, showing her how to lay traps for hares when she was barely two years old. Now, she uses those finely-tuned skills to observe the night sky, watching the signals of space as stars are born. She was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to obtain a PhD in astrophysics, was the resident astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawai’i Telescope on Mauna Kea and is now the star of National Film Board documentary North Star — a five-part series that follows Rousseau-Nepton as she studies the cosmos from Ashuapmushuan to Wendake to Mount Mégantic to the slopes of Mauna Kea, Hawai’i. Rousseau-Nepton spoke with Canadian Geographic on how hunting with her father made her a great space observer, as well as about Innu science and storytelling, the importance of mentorship, and how the universe is a part of all of us.

On how observing in nature helps her observe the night sky

When you’re hunting, you get to be very attentive to details, the little things that help you be a better hunter and understand your environment and how it works. You’re focused: you hear, you look for every little change. You also spend a lot of time in the same territory. You do it by heart; it’s like your house. If something is displaced, you notice. If something appears, you notice. When you’re looking at the sky, it’s similar. You have a lot of information that comes from the telescope. You have images, you have spectra, and you observe stars in their environment. The galaxy contains a lot of gas, a lot of space, and also different generations of stars. And you try to figure out how do they interact with each other. So, for me, it’s similar in a sense, because they’re all ingredients of a very complex environment. And every little clue that you get from each of those elements helps you understand those interactions. When you see how stars warm up the gas around them when they’re young, and then how that gas eventually cools down and once it’s cold enough it can collapse and form new stars. You see these similar patterns in nature.

On looking behind to see where you’re going

In the universe, there are so many different things that evolve through time. What I like about astronomy is it’s a science that is fundamental, but it’s also writing our own story. We’re trying to go back in time and understand the present day — and the stars, they’re at the heart of this evolution process. And when you look at them now, you can see some of them that have characteristics — a very evolved star has had contribution from so many of their ancestors. They are enriched by the presence of those ancestors of space. Other stars are more isolated and they are more like the first stars that you might have seen — or at least from the very far past, where they have had less interaction with those other generations of stars. And I really find it fascinating because by looking at the nearby universe, by looking at all those different stars, we can have a better picture of the past and also try to kind of imagine what the future of the universe will be. For me, it’s a beautiful cycle. I really enjoy studying it because it’s an environment, just a different one: the environment of space.

A very evolved star has had contribution from so many of their ancestors.

On a human connection with space

A lot of people love space. I’m very fortunate that when I talk about my science, I know people will be interested. Because even though it’s a very intense concept, everybody can feel connected to it because it’s part of our history, it’s part of our past and we see it above our heads every night. It’s accessible in some way. And that’s what we want to elude to in the series. We want to make sure that every kid, wherever they are, whatever they do, whichever community they are from, that they know that they can do it if they want to.

On the importance of mentorship

You need to be mentored through your studies to graduate school and even through research afterwards because being a researcher is the most beautiful job, but it’s stressful sometimes. You’re always questioning yourself. You want to perform. There’s some stress associated with that, some pressure. And so having people around you telling you that you’re doing a great job is important because you’re not going to tell it to yourself. I think women are worse than men for that. But also, you need to have mentors who you can connect to. My mentor was Carmel [Robert]. We see her briefly in the documentary series. She was the only woman in the Department of Astronomy at Laval University [in Quebec City]. And I know that it made a great difference for me, feeling like I could say what I wanted — that she would hear it and that she would weight my opinion and value it. For me, that was important. If I didn’t have people around me pointing out my strengths — not only to me, but to other people — who knows where I would be. And knowing that I can do this now for students — I always want to give time for those students, time to talk to them, to see where they’re at, what they’re going through. If they want to share things with me and if I can help them, this is what I’m here for. I can still put myself into their shoes.

On Innu ancestral knowledge and astrophysics

This is kind of mind blowing. We’re going to go back in time to 2013. That’s when I got my PhD. I was trained in the most Western ways you can think of. I was at the university and I was in a group that was mainly men, a couple women, and definitely no Indigenous people and definitely no Indigenous way of teaching or knowledge transfer. But when I started working, I finally had some free time for myself and one of my good friends who I work with, Julie Bolduc-Duval — she’s working at Discover the Universe — she asked me if I could speak to the perspective on eclipses amongst First Nations. When she asked me, her question really hit me through the heart because I didn’t know. But I wanted to know! And I felt like I should have known. It brought up all of those questions inside of me. I told her: I don’t know right now, but give me some time. That’s when I started to research astronomy knowledge in my community.

I started reading. I started asking. After a couple of months, I was able to talk about eclipses, but not necessarily everything. I continued researching. It’s not like there is a book about Innu astronomy. It’s not online. Google or Wikipedia is not going to help you. I found bits and pieces. It’s like the tip of the iceberg or like crumbs here and there. After a couple of years of reading and listening and asking around, I was able to draw a picture of what astronomy was for my community. And it still blows my mind today.

One of the beautiful things, in the Innu community and the Innu life philosophy, is we come from the stars and we return to the stars. Those stars are our ancestors, but they’re also us. And there’s this kind of parallel world where you live on earth in a physical shape for a bit. But your great person inside of you, the Mishtapeut, is always there. That parallel world is up there and it’s helping you make decisions to go through life. It also gives you insights into how you should do things, through dreams. Through that philosophy, you’re never dead. You’re always there. The ancestral world — the place where all the souls, where all the Mishtapeut are — is eternal. And all of the generations of the people from the past are there. I like that philosophy, and I find that beautiful.

There’s also this connection with the stars — that the stars are our ancestors and that we come from the stars. And today, strangely, I’m studying how stars are forming, how all the generations of stars affect new generations of stars that are formed later on, and how that helps to create solar systems with planets and living beings — and without the cycle of ancestors, of stars, of generations of stars, we wouldn’t be here today.

When we’re doing science: science is embedded in culture, it’s embedded in society. You can’t do just your science without thinking about that.

On the science within stories

I found information in the stories about astronomy that is really detailed. Without being an astronomer, I don’t think I would have seen it. I could relate stories about the fisher, or the wolverine, to the motion of their constellation in the sky — the stories were actually talking about stellar motions and how they were related to seasons and timekeeping. It’s very beautiful.

The moon is very important for Innu. My dear friend from the community explained that the word for moon in Innu like a clock or moon counter — because the moon was there to count time. And we’re using it also for the year, but there’s not a finite number of moon cycle in a year. It’s like 12 and a half or something. So they had a system. It was really precise. One of the texts I read said there’s 10 days in the year where the time stopped. I was, like, ‘This is very strange. Why would they say that?’ And then by looking and looking and trying to reflect the fact that the moon is important, and the sun is also important to track the year, I found out that it’s because when it’s winter during the solstice, the sun gets super close to the horizon line. It’s slower. And at some point before it goes back up before the summer solstice, when the sun is way up high in the sky, it looks like it’s steady for about 10 days. So, the sun comes down close to the solstice, the winter stops for 10 days, and then it goes back up. And those 10 days are really close to what is missing if you have 12 moon cycles and you had like about 11 days. Then you get 355 days and you have your full year.

On the balance between Indigenous rights and science

With everything that happened on the Mauna Kea and in Hawaii [some native Hawaiians have concerns about the summit of Mauna Kea, which is sacred, being used for astronomical research], I really hope that this whole situation is going to be a way to bring back some of the [Indigenous] rights. It is a platform for everybody to see internationally to see that there’s something unfair happening. Before I left, the committee that is actually managing the mountain was being reorganized. And finally some native Hawaiians are members of the committee that has executive power over what’s happening, which is an improvement. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen up there in the next couple of years. I’m sure we will hear about it. Everybody is looking.

When we’re doing science: science is embedded in culture, it’s embedded in society. You can’t do just your science without thinking about that. You have to think about your impact on the environment, yes, but your impact on the people, what they do and how they use the land. It is so important. And if we don’t do that, this is where we land: in a situation where we have protests, people are not necessarily understanding the science that is being done. People are not necessarily understanding why we don’t respect the land in the way that it should be. I hope that astronomy, because it’s always on mountains or on great plateaus that are also sacred for communities, for native communities around the planet — I hope that these projects, the new ones, the future ones, will now include a huge portion of education about what this land represents for the community, what its purpose is, and if science can actually happen — or not. And with the agreement that the community is okay with the activity happening there.

On which star speaks to her

There’s a star that is in the constellation of Kuekuatsheu or Orion — the  Wolverine in my community — which is that beautiful trapezium-looking constellation. Some people see a drum also, or a warrior. On the left shoulder of that warrior, there’s a red star. Even with a lot of light pollution, you’d see it because it’s very bright. It’s a red giant, a massive star that has evolved into a much larger star. It’s kind of inflated. And it is so big that one day it will explode in a supernova. And it’s probably one of the most primitive stars like that that we see in the night sky that could eventually “pop!” When I was young, I remember walking back home at night and seeing that constellation in the winter when it’s crispy and cold outside and you can see the stars super well and that star is right there shining. You should always look at it just in case. Maybe it’ll be the moment at which it will explode. We don’t know. It could happen in a minute or in 10,000 years, but it will happen in, for the stars, a short period of time. I would like to see it when it happens. It’ll be as bright as, or brighter than, the full moon. You’ll be able to see your shadow at night from the light of that explosion. But it’s not going to be dangerous for us. It’s just going to be pretty.

A woman sands on a rock holding a fishing rod, looking out to water next to a man who watches the woman.
Laurie Rousseau-Nepton fishes with her father Pierre Nepton (Photo: courtesy of National Film Board of Canada)
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Two women paddle a canoe on a calm day. The light is golden.
Laurie Rousseau-Nepton paddles at the stern of the canoe in Hawaii (Photo: courtesy of National Film Board of Canada)
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Rousseau-Nepton accompanies a group of students (Photo: courtesy of National Film Board of Canada)
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At the top of the Mauna Kea observatory (Photo: courtesy of National Film Board of Canada)
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An upturned face, surrounded by darkness, gazes up into the night sky.
North Star follows Innu astrophysicist Laurie Rousseau-Nepton. (Photo: courtesy of National Film Board of Canada)
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