I’m a great fan of astronomy. I started reading astronomy books at a young age and, throughout my career, I have written a lot of pieces about astronomy and the world beyond our own in my Assignment Helper career. It’s beautiful to learn about all those great astronomers who sought out to learn more about the universe and discovered great bodies in space, after which they had the privilege of naming these bodies.
It was all good until I started noticing a trend that made me rather uncomfortable: all the names for objects in our star system, and far beyond, seemed to be Greek or Latin in origin. A good number of them were named for Roman and Greek gods. I couldn’t help thinking that, had I been an alien doing research on the progress of human knowledge on the universe beyond their own planet, I would have arrived at very inaccurate conclusions about their diversity. If naming trends from the past are anything to go by, then Humanity is mostly European. Humanity won’t be getting any top resume reviews to join the Galactic Federation with a resume like that!
A Colonial Mindset
In a sense, astronomers in history have made the universe seem European, if with nothing other than their naming conventions. It’s almost as if space were being colonized by Greek and Latin names. If you think that sounds more than a little frivolous, then I have more interesting examples for you.
We are now at a point in our development as a species where we’re thinking about and planning hard to go beyond our world and explore space. In the near future, we hope to build beautiful space cities where humans can live in harmony. There is lots of effort being put into this by both the public and private sectors. NASA is making its own plans to have bases on the moon and build transportation to Mars, while the private sector has the likes of Space X and Blue Origin that are working on pretty much the same thing.
Again, all this is good until you take a closer look at some of the language being used. For example, for the longest time, the phrase has been “colonize Mars”, which I’ve seen on lots of UK best essays. That’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to colonize Mars. The idea that what we’re doing is colonizing not only alludes to the baggage of the word “colonize” but also wrongly frames what we really want to do.
On Earth, colonialism hasn’t traditionally been the romantic notion that many in the space industry think it to be. It has involved the occupation of lands that already had indigenous peoples on them, stripping them of valuable resources and committing despicable acts of genocide on the native population in the process. From the exploits of Spain and Portugal in the Americas to those of the Dutch in the Caribbean, South Africa, and Indonesia, to those of the Belgians in Central Africa, to those of the English virtually everywhere in the world (which you can read about on bid4papers), colonialism leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially of those who have historically been on the receiving end.
In such a climate it feels like using the same term for what we’re going to do on Mars or anywhere else is not only romanticizing something that has an unromantic past back here on Earth, but in a sense editing the past by painting terms associated with it in rosier colors. Both of these things are deeply inconsiderate of the history and effect of language and its use.
A possible solution to the problem has been suggested: perhaps, rather than say we want to colonize Mars, we could say we want to settle on it. And so we would have Mars settlements instead of Mars colonies. However, this is still problematic as it reminds us of the actions of Israel on the West Bank.
If you think about things from this perspective, you start to see other ugly ideas crawl out of the woodwork. Elon Musk’s Occupy Mars t-shirt that he wore for his controversial appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in 2018 is one example. It seemed in complete mockery of the larger Occupy Movement.
Or consider the fact that space travel currently doesn’t seem to have all minorities represented. Only one Native American has been to space. Meanwhile, space tourism is set to be so expensive that only the more privileged in society are likely to be able to afford it. A diversity of the people we listen to about what to do while we’re ‘up there’, as well as how to think about our spacefaring future is necessary and should be promoted more.
On the other hand, even in the pursuit of science, sometimes great conflicts with indigenous people occur, many of which I’ve read on a grademiners review. Take the Mauna Kea Observatory, for example, which is based on the Island of Hawaii. The Thirty Meter Telescope, which is under construction, is set to sit atop the Mauna Kea Mountain and this has become the source of controversy between the Hawaiian natives and the astronomers at the observatory. Astronomers argue that the Mauna Kea is the most auspicious site on which to place the new telescope, the scientific goals of which are important for everyone, native or otherwise. The natives, on the other hand, argue that the mountain is a sacred ground and highly vulnerable ecologically. They also say that the observatory isn’t compensating them fairly enough for its use of the site.
The full story is quite complex, of course, but it highlights the greater issue of conflict with the indigenous, and a failure on the part of scientists sometimes to consider the welfare of the natives in the area where they set up shop.
Luckily, there are some efforts around the table to try and make space for everyone. For example, naming conventions have begun to change. The Kuiper belt object originally named Ultima Thule, for example, has now had its name changed to Arrokoth, A Native American Powhatan word for sky.
Arrokoth isn’t the only heavenly body named in an indigenous language. There are Haumea (Hawaiian goddess of childbirth), Huya (Wayuu god of rain and winter), Sedna (Inuit sea goddess), Makemake (Rapanui fertility god), Quaoar and Weywot (Tongva god and his son). Outer worlds are finally starting to be named after indigenous peoples. We can only hope that this trend continues until the heavens reflect the diversity on the earth.
On other fronts, the debate about what kind of language we should be using when framing our endeavor to become a spacefaring civilization continues, with many panel discussions held and many pieces written, and many notable celebrities in the science world weighing in.
This discussion is far from over. With time, the skies will hopefully become decolonized, but only if we all speak up and join the discussion on humanity’s future. I’m still deeply passionate about astronomy, but I’m even more passionate about the possibility of writing a new story for humanity in space; one that is fairer, more diverse, and more inclusive. I hope I’m not alone.