On Rescuing Reporters and Accurate Language in Astronomy


I imagine the recent negotiations to have gone something like this. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I like to imagine that Uncle Bill threatened Kim Jong Il with a Roman spatha.

I for one am glad that Bill Clinton gets a little attention. He gets to be the goddamned hero for once. And you know what? Despite everything that anyone says, the right thing happened. Two innocent women were freed from a very bleak future.

This is vitally important. It is not possible to see this as a bad thing unless you are a terrible person.

So anyway, NASA has released an image that was captured by the Spitzer telescope. I like Spitzer and I am a huge fan of the things that we get to see because of Spitzer. And this new image is not a disappointment. It’s an interesting spiral galaxy with a strange eye-shaped structure at its center. I think the most notable feature, however, is smaller galaxy that appears to caught up in orbit around the larger galaxy’s nucleus. It makes a lot of sense from a physics standpoint. The moon orbits Earth which orbits the sun which orbits our own galactic center. Why not have larger, binary galaxies? All around pretty sweet.

The thing that I wanted to focus on, however, is not the image itself, but rather, the language used to describe the image. And exerpt:

  • “The ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy is causing the ring to light up with new stars.”

I know that I’m not the first person to point this out, but if we want to be perfectly accurate with our language and consider that this galaxy in the image is about 50-million light-years away, shouldn’t the above quotation be phrased more like this:

  • “The ring around the black hole was bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy was causing the ring to light up with new stars.”

I mean, really. The image is of the state of that galaxy fifty million years ago. I’m not an astronomer, but I am a linguist. When astronomers discuss these things, do they use past-tense language? I’m really curious about this, because it seems to me that by using simpler language to ease communication, then some information is lost in the discussion. By using present tense, you must make the (to be fair, usually accurate) assumption that the reader understands that “is” actually means “was the case fifty million years ago.”

On the one hand, I’m curious about the type of language that professional astronomers use. On the other, I feel like I ought to lobby for the use of accurate language when describing celestial objects like distant galaxies.

Perhaps the most viable solution would be to take Rush Limbaugh, freeze him, stick him in a pod and launch him to that other galaxy so that he can report back to us about what it’s doing. With any luck, we’ll miss and he’ll be lost in the inconceivably vast void between galaxies forever.

Would it be easier to just send him to North Korea where he would be forced to do hard labor for ten years?

Singen Sie mich adieu.

4 thoughts on “On Rescuing Reporters and Accurate Language in Astronomy

  1. I prefer the gladius to the longer spatha. It’s a question of utility really. I prefer to forsake length for reliability. Consider the gladiator. But you’re right, as a former president he would more than likely be armed with the sword of a general. As per the question of Past Vs. Present tense, I think it’s more of a philosophical question, which I attempt to avoid. If we can only perceive something at a distance then our tense is determined by our perception. Like the person who dies before you hear the report of the rifle. Just because we don’t hear the report until after the death the person is still dead at the point of impact. Maybe this makes no sense at all however.

  2. Re: the spatha: Yeah, I was going more for the sound of the word “spatha” as opposed to gladius. It’s a more obscure sword, but not unheard of, and has a cool name. But it does make sense that Clinton might prefer it to the gladius.

    Re: past vs. present: I think you’re right on the money. When I was writing the post, it did occur to me that POV would dictate verb tense, but it still strikes me as odd and inaccurate. I do like the analogy to the rifle report.

  3. I think that the use of present tense vs. past tense is really more of a matter of educational focus. Astronomers more then likely do not take very many English classes in Star school, and thusly wouldn’t have as strong of a grasp on the proper usage of words. Really the use of the present tense was simply a grammatical mistake on the part of someone that could talk for days about black holes and spiral galaxies, but more then likely is unsure of when to use “then” and “than”. I have that same problem.

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