Politically-Incorrect Astronomy

Avi Loeb
5 min readMar 4, 2024
The interaction of two galaxies triggers intense star formation in the Antennae system, imaged here by the Hubble Space Telescope (Credit: NASA/ESA)

What could be more denigrating than being called a degenerate star, a white dwarf, an obese black hole, a red giant, a brown dwarf or a yellow supergiant? Surely, if you were to use any of these terms to describe a person, you would be cancelled by social justice warriors and social-media zealots. Yet, astronomers use these terms routinely in their papers and textbooks. Should this terminology be banned?

A recent opinion essay in Scientific American suggested to replace the term “a collision” between interacting galaxies by the term “a hug”, as well as to abandon the use of terms with violent connotations, such as: “cannibalism, harassment, starvation, strangulation, stripping or suffocation” in the context of star formation and galaxy evolution.

Most of the objects considered by astronomers, like faraway stars or galaxies, have no impact on our daily life. Changing their names mainly serves the purpose of “virtue signaling.” But let us be real, get down to Earth and recognize that much bigger atrocities exist in our world. It would make more sense to counter them first than change the labels of what we see in our sky.

Life is worth living only if you choose wisely which battles to fight. It is wiser to ban “gain of function” experiments for biological warfare than to ban public discourse on the conjecture that an unintended lab-leak in Wuhan triggered the COVID-19 pandemic. The mix of polarizing politics with science is a toxic combination.

For one, nations around the world spend a total of 2 trillion dollars per year on military budgets and conflicts. Would a better vocabulary to describe stars or galaxies reduce in any significant level the suffering of innocent people worldwide as a result of bad political actors?

Consider another example closer to home. Restaurant menus list animals that are killed and served as food with no remorse, because they are believed to be less intelligent than humans. If systems with a super-human artificial-intelligence (AI), trained on human behavior, would decide that humans are less intelligent than they are, then hurting humans might become acceptable to them as a form of imitating our own attitude towards less intelligent lifeforms on restaurant menus or towards soldiers of an adversarial country in a military conflict. As Oscar Wilde noted: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” so we should not be surprised to witness AI systems mirroring our faults. Social activists should be more worried about the existential risk posed by AI than the nuances of astronomers labeling galaxy formation and evolution. Obviously, we should keep a similar existential risk in mind on our first encounter with intelligent extraterrestrials. We must leave a good impression on them or else they might serve us in their restaurants.

Sometimes, the bickering about wording enters the institutions of Astronomy. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union decided to call Pluto a dwarf planet, demoting it from the status of the ninth planet in the Solar system, maintained for 76 years after its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh. In 2010, Mike Brown from Caltech published with pride a book titled: “How I killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming”. In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto and its five moons and revealed a variety of mountain ranges and volcanoes on Pluto’s surface. This surface shows ices of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, water, and methane, with young regions that were resurfaced recently as they are devoid of craters. A thin hazy layer of a cold, nitrogen­-dominated atmosphere extends 150 km above Pluto’s surface. The surfaces of Pluto’s smaller satellites, Hydra and Nix, contain a high level of water ice. Is this dwarf planet less scientifically interesting than the eight planets in the Solar system? Does it really matter that we labeled it a dwarf planet rather than a planet?

Name calling is a superficial variant of stamp collecting, but science should better focus on substance. Wording-activism should be secondary to rigorous scientific research on the underlying physics behind the phenomena we observe in the sky. Calling a `zebra’ an `elephant’ is inconsequential, because the animal does not care what we call it and a different label does not carry an explanation for its stripes. Similarly, calling unknown substances “dark matter” and “dark energy” is insignificant. We could have called them Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena “X” and “Y” instead. What we actually care about as scientists is what constitutes these substances.

The language of science uses equations where arbitrary characters or labels are used to track celestial objects or their properties. The choice of labels is secondary to the main goal of scientific understanding.

If we ever encounter extraterrestrials, it would be fun to compare notes and learn how alien scientists label a white dwarf, a black hole, a red giant, a brown dwarf or a yellow supergiant. The language of mathematics should be universal across the Universe, but what is acceptable as a “politically correct label” might depend on culture. If the extraterrestrials originated from the habitable zone around a common dwarf star, their classification scheme might be attached to infrared light of the type emitted by their cool star. If they have infrared eyes, virtue signaling in their culture might be rooted in infrared heat based on body temperature, rather than skin color based on the reflection of sunlight in our culture.

The sky offers a humbling perspective on our culture-dependent norms and aspirations. Nicolaus Copernicus realized that we do not occupy a privileged position at the center of the Universe. The statistics of exoplanet surveys suggest that the Earth-Sun system is not exceptionally rare, so we are not privileged in that context either. AI systems will soon surpass our intelligence, demonstrating that we are also not privileged to be the most intelligent beings on Earth. Just like stars, we live for a limited time and we better focus on a better understanding of the Universe rather than on superficial societal postures. Massive stars live a shorter life than cool stars and we better avoid them as a role model. They die violently through an explosion or an implosion, just like the brightest stars in Hollywood.

Science is an expression of love towards the Universe, as if it were our partner. The more we care about partners, the more we want to know about them and avoid the superficial act of calling them names. As William Shakespeare wrote in his love play “Romeo and Juliet”:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

I rest my case.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".