The Language of Astronomy Is Needlessly Violent and Inaccurate

Astronomy is beautiful and elegant. The language we use to describe its processes is anything but

This summer, a team of students and I were enjoying breathtaking views of the night sky while we collected data using telescopes at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. One night, when we were outside on a telescope catwalk between the screams of a mountain lion, one of my students amazed me with her interpretation of the fate of Andromeda, the galaxy closest to our Milky Way. In describing how these two galaxies will merge a few billion years from now, she said they will experience “a giant galactic hug.”

The kindness, but also the accuracy, of the language my student used was in sharp contrast to the standard description we use in astronomy to explain the final destiny of Andromeda and the Milky Way: “a collision.” But as astronomers have predicted, when Andromeda and the Milky Way finally meet, their stars will entwine and create a larger cosmic structure, a process that is more creating than destroying, which is what we envision when we use the term collision. A galactic hug is scientifically truthful, and it’s led me to believe that astronomers should reconsider the language we use.

For instance, in galaxy evolution we invoke imagery strikingly similar to what you would expect if you were eavesdropping on Hannibal Lecter: words like cannibalism, harassment, starvation, strangulation, stripping or suffocation. There is a rather long list of foul analogies that have entered, and are now entrenched, in the lexicon of professional astronomy. We have grown accustomed to this violent language and as a community, we seldom question or reflect on its use.

Strangulation is a particularly cringeworthy term in astronomy, referring to the decline of the number of stars born in some types of galaxies. This is a vicious crime where most often the victim is a woman; the perpetrator, a man. Yet, we use this word mindlessly to describe a slow astronomical process that takes millions of years. Under certain conditions, some galaxies use up or lose the gas that is the primordial ingredient to form stars. When that happens, galaxies make new stars at a lower rate. But these galaxies do not die or suffer great harm. They will continue to shine and will live their natural evolution.

This is but one of many examples of violent language in our field that actually describes something gradual, slow and perhaps even gentle. Of course, sometimes powerful language is an accurate reflection of what’s happening—a supernova “explosion,” for instance, describes when a star detonates in a mighty blast at the end of its life, enriching the universe with brand new materials. Terms like this need no revision. But in many cases, they’re needlessly vicious and promote inaccurate connotations.

To shift toward more welcoming and truthful language in astronomy, scientific journals can push to change the currently accepted language. The referee, or the scientific editor, can ask the authors to consider more appropriate descriptions of the physical processes involved. Referees, editors and editorial boards can step up to enforce scientific accuracy and stop the use of violent, misogynistic language that is now pervasive. This is a call for scientific precision. The use of hypercharged words in our field ignores the fact that this violent imagery can trigger distress in colleagues who might have been victims of violence.

As authors, we are responsible for the language that we use when we write our papers. We can make a conscious choice and use more factual language. We often ask colleagues to proofread our papers and to look for typos or glaring mistakes. We can engage a reader with different sensitivities, a different gender or ethnicity, and ask for feedback on the terms that we use. This type of conscious engagement with colleagues with different backgrounds can only be beneficial.

As astronomers, we must strive to create a more inclusive and diverse community that reflects the composition of our society. Valuable efforts to provide opportunities for women and minorities to succeed in astronomy have been created. However, by many metrics, the progress made towards gender equality and true diversity has been painfully slow.

We must listen to the new generation of astronomers. My student showed me that while some astronomical processes can be intense, the universe revealed through astronomy provides us with the most fascinating sights known to humankind. Like many other young scientists, she thinks that when we explain astronomical phenomena with wording and phrases that share our excitement and appreciation, it also encourages others to join in and wonder what else we can discover together.

The universe is beautiful, elegant and ever-changing. Astronomy would be wise to follow its lead.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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