Our sun is one of the approximately 300 billion stars that make up the Milky Way. The Milky Way is part of what is known as the Local Group, a formation of at least 54 galaxies galaxies spanning 10 million light years. The Local Group lies on the fringe of a much larger supercluster of galactic groups and clusters which contains more than 100,000 galaxies and spans some 520 million light years.
I’m not sure how many of us can really make sense of these sorts of numbers, or the idea that the universe is composed of a web of galactic clusters that shift and flow like water. Yet there’s something deeply fitting in the news earlier this week that the team responsible for identifying this vast supercluster have named it Laniakea, a Hawaiian word that means “immense” or “immeasurable heaven”, and was chosen to honour the Polynesian sailors who once navigated the great space of the Pacific by reading the stars.
It’s a name whose poetry extends beyond the obvious resonances with the ocean. It often seems there is something irresistible about our tendency to see the ocean infinite, immeasurable, trackless. There’s little doubt it’s an association that runs very deep, but it’s also at least partly a cultural construction, a legacy of Romanticism and the ways technology has progressively alienated us from the environment.
In fact the ocean is anything but trackless. As the achievements of the Pacific Islanders (and other pre-modern sailors) demonstrate, it is quite possible to read the sea, to learn to make sense not just of the stars but of patterns of wind and wave, the movement of birds and fish and driftwood (as several of the pieces in The Penguin Book of the Ocean attest).
The systems of knowledge, of fine-grained observation and remembered experience that underpinned this process were developed over hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Yet because the cultures that encoded them were largely oral, they were also vulnerable, and as the Pacific was colonised, and its cultures disrupted and suppressed, they largely disappeared. Indeed the fact that persist at all is largely due to the efforts of people such as the late Will Kyselka and David Lewis, who worked to preserve and recover as much of them as possible.
That systems of knowledge acquired over thousands of years should have been lost like this is strangely ironic: after all, the colonial project was spearheaded by the scientific voyages undertaken by explorers such as Banks and Cook during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, voyages that were themselves part of the extraordinary project of discovery and description that underpins modern science, and which has led, more than 200 years later, to us being able to map the flow of galaxies through billions of light years of space with such sophistication that it is possible for structures such as Laniakea to be identified and understood.
Lanikea isn’t the first astronomical object to be given a Polynesian name: astronomers have already chosen to name two of the dwarf planets discovered in recent years in the outer solar system MakeMake (for the creator of humanity and god of fertility worshipped by the Easter Islanders) and Haumea (the matron goddess of the island of Hawaii), yet it’s certainly the most significant. Nor should we be so naive as to think giving Polynesian names to heavenly bodies will bring back what has been lost: as Victoria Nelson has observed, “the death of a culture, like the death of a star, lasts longer than anyone can possibly imagine. The sadness, the echoes and ambiguities, persist for hundreds of years”. But reading about the naming of Laniakea I found myself wondering whether it’s possible that by incorporating the language and poetry of the Polynesians into the scientific endeavour we begin to acknowledge the repositories of knowledge embedded in their cultures (and by extension other non-Western and indigenous cultures), and just perhaps, go some small way toward recognising the injustices that have been inflicted upon them.
Laniakea. Immense Heaven.