In a recent science article at the New York Times, the unpredictable blendings and contingencies of history jumped out at me in the way that Titan’s methane lake, “Ontario Lacus,” came to be named:
In 2004 a camera known as the Imaging Science Subsystem on the Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn recorded a blurry image of what looked like a lake basin about the size of Lake Ontario through Titan’s hazy atmosphere. That is now named Ontario Lacus.
Of course, it also looks like the track of Bigfoot, and might just as well have been named, say, Lake Sasquatch. And here are just some of the other historical contingencies that went into the naming of the lake on Titan:
- For one, you had to have ice ages on Earth—specifically, the Wisconsonian Glaciation periods (70,000-10,000 BCE). These are associated with human migration over the Bering land bridge into North America, as well as the carving of Lake Ontario.
- It was Iroquois, the descendants of those who came from Asia via the Bering land bridge to North America, who first named Lake Ontario. “Ontario” is loosely derived from the Iroquois language, and means “beautiful lake.”
- A key scientist responsible for Titan research had to be familiar enough with Great Lakes geography (either by growing up in the area, paying attention in geography class, or happening to see an image of Lake Ontario that stuck in his or her mind) to make the association and name it.
In other words, contingencies large and small went into the naming of Titan’s Ontario Lacus, as is true of all naming, all becoming. How does it feel to live in a universe in which there is so little (perhaps nothing?) essential or natural about it? Everything appears to be serendipity that might have been otherwise, including us and our desires.
Heraclitus, the Buddha, and Lucretius seem to have been among the first to absorb the universe’s radical contingency. Then Darwin got it.
And, of course, Nietzsche.
How about you? What will you name and do? How does it feel to live as a flung weird thing on an alien planet, and named by others?
This post is about gay marriage, isn’t it?