Ontario Lacus: How Does It Feel to Live in an Alien World in Which Everything That Is Does Not Have to Be?


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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Ontario Lacus: How Does It Feel to Live in an Alien World in Which Everything That Is Does Not Have to Be?

  1. Mike says:

    I named a website. Before naming it, I did a web search to see what else was out there. I came across this blog. I had a sense of deja vu that I had come across the blog before, perhaps in a previous web search? In any case, I replied to a few posts and went on about life. I think I stumbled across the blog again, made a few posts, and again went about life.

    I just recently put a old hard drive into a computer and started using it again. When I started Firefox, this blog came up again as one of my saved sessions. So I’ve started replying again.

    Some may call this a string of co-incidences. Maybe it is. As a Christian, I am always suspicious of things that seem to be co-incidence. How do I not know this isn’t God directing my path? Usually I walk down the path a little ways to see what comes of it.

    I hope I am adding some perspective of a more balanced and conservative Christian than some of the other people who have wandered on to your blog, especially on your posts dealing with the book of Revelation…

    I am trying to learn how to get WordPress to tell me when someone posts. Unfortunately, I’m not always smart enough to check the box for e-mails on follow ups, but I do seem to be getting e-mails on all new posts.

    • santitafarella says:


      I tend to be suspicious of either/or thinking (as I hope that you are as well), but it seems to me that chance is one of the great faultlines that we all must decide upon, whether it exists or not. If God exists, it would seem that nothing happens by chance, and yet everything appears to happen by chance. And it seems tricky to adopt a middle ground (chance functions in some areas, but God is in control in others).

      Something that divides the traditional theist from the atheist seems to be radical contingency. When are coincidences not coincidences? When is the seemingly miraculous just a coincidence?

      Grayling and Polkinghorn seem to be reflecting this tension here:



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