Memorandum of the Contact and Cultural Exchange to the settlement Iparaha: General Sciences divsion
From: Dr. Renée ISHIKAWA, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)
To: Dr. Mara SHANG, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)
August 11, 2206
I know the university senate has been eager for a more substantial update, especially after the worrying communique the U.N. mission received in July; you can reassure them that such an update is on its way, and that we’re all fine here. Yes, there was a small diplomatic incident, in that the Chereni did eat a couple of members of the diplomatic corps, but it was a genuine misunderstanding, and for what it’s worth, they do feel terrible about it. We’ve been hard at work building bridges with our hosts here at Iparaha, and the governing committee of the Exchange is putting finishing touches now on a pretty comprehensive document on the Chereni in re: the possibility of mutually beneficial scientific and economic exchange between our two species. Though the contents of the report are supposed to remain classified until the General Assembly has time to go over it, I can tell you that things are looking extremely promising. Aside from the aforementioned mixup, the Chereni are quite the peaceful people, and are as eager to learn from us, as we are from them.
As comprehensive as the report is going to be, though, we’ve learned so much in so short a time we couldn’t possibly fit everything in it. The general outlines of Chereni biology, history, culture, law, religion, etc., are there, and I’ll leave it to the experts and exchange officers briefed in those fields to cover them. (In short: the Chereni are like us in a lot of ways, and unlike us in a lot of ways; once you get past the different evolutionary pressures that produced them, and some elementary differences in their perceptual systems, though, it’s more like than unlike—under the slime and the scales, they’re basically human.) But there are some things that aren’t going to make it into the report, for reasons of time and space; of particular interest to me was the Chereni approach to astronomy. Well, not astronomy exactly, but astronomical nomenclature. In short: on the Cheren homeworld, the poets named the stars.
A little background: the arc of Chereni history has been pretty different from Earth’s—not surprising, given the environmental and biological differences, to say nothing of psychological—but it’s just as long and complicated, and I can’t hope to give you anything like a reasonable summary, so you will have to forgive me in advance for butchering it with crude analogies to our own. But there was a period, a few centuries ago, very roughly analagous to the scientific revolution on Earth, when it looked like the general trend of Chereni science and culture (and the interaction between the two) might’ve followed something like the trajectory they did on Earth: science as the province of socioeconomic elites, with time and money to spare, efforts being concentrated by something like universities or national academies, plus elite sponsorship, producing the ancestor of the modern research institution, and so on and so forth. But there was a political upheaval and, to cut a long and boring story short, the first Cheren Enlightenment fizzled. It didn’t die out, but it didn’t have anything like the impact the Enlightenment on Earth did, and the first, tentantive steps of scientific exploration and systematization of thought didn’t lead to anything much. Experiment and empiricism became the province mostly of a few minor religious orders, who laid a lot of the groundwork for the second Enlightenment. But they weren’t much interested in astronomy.
You see, the atmosphere of the Cheren homeworld is thicker than Earth’s. It lets some light through—they say about as much as a very cloudy day here at Iparaha—but their world is further from their sun than Earth is, and has to trap quite a lot of heat so that the surface remains inhabitable. There are very high mountains and plateaus where the clouds thin enough that you can see the stars, but the Chereni can’t survive any better than humans at those altitudes, so there wasn’t much in the way of ancient astronomy. The advent of radio helped a little—natural radio sources in the sky at least got them looking up—but the heavens never captured the Chereni imagination the way they did the human. Their gods were always walking among them, invisible; the skies were like the seas or the caves below the earth, supposed to be filled with demons and monsters, and the unhappy dead.
So even within the scientific fringe, slowly building the foundations of methodical empiricism during this great medium aevum, astronomy was a further fringe; it wasn’t the monks who tried to study the stars, venturing to the high mountaintops and the margins of the great uplands to make fleeting observations of the few visible stars, but mystics and wild-eyed hermits. Even the Chereni can’t account for why they did. I have my own suspicions—and they have to do with the feeling that infects the soul the first time you stand in a place like the Atacama Desert and look up at the night sky—but they remain suspicions, and pretty anthropocentric ones at that. These early astronomers weren’t versed in the religious language which was later adapted to scientific vocabulary, in the way the educated elite of Europe adapted Greek and Latin to science, and their jargon had little in common with the rest of early Chereni science, which only deepened the split. But they weren’t astrologers. They had no truck with gods and myths when they measured the stars—for, after all, among the Chereni, the gods walk the land, not the skies.
When the real Enlightenment came to the Chereni, when the scientific method finally exploded out of the cloisters and the scriptoria, the revolution was as swift and thorough as it was on Earth. Maybe even more so. But it didn’t sweep up astronomy, not at first. Astronomers were wild and dangerous back then—weirdos, not scientists. By the time the mainstream Chereni scientific establishment was ready to treat them seriously, a whole parallel subculture had emerged when it came to the study of the stars. True, they were every bit as systematic and rigorous as the scientists; but the astronomers had no truck with scientific jargon, distrusted dry technical language which was devoid of awe or appreciation of the phenomena it studied, and disagreed entirely with the implicit purpose of the Chereni scientific project. Their goal was not to understand the universe, they claimed, not as its own end. Their goal was nothing less than the transformation of the Cheren soul, in the crucible of beauty.
I’m quoting from an old astronomical treatise there, and not really doing the translation justice—please forgive me. Chereni grammar can be every bit as bloody-minded as human. Nowadays, of course, astronomy, like any other science/philosophy/scholarship, is regarded among the Chereni as one of many valid and interesting domains of knowledge, and probably without any inherent special purpose. It retains a distinct vocabulary, though, and in Chereni schools is usually more associated with what we would mostly call humanities and social sciences: literary and digital criticism, linguistics, conlanging, and sociology. But that’s a historical artifact.
But when I first sat down with my Chereni colleagues to compare our star charts, what really struck me were the names. That’s probably their biggest inheritance from their ancestors. You see, on Earth, we have to rely on photographs to convey the wonder of science to the public. And sometimes, even the pictures don’t do it justice; you see something a hundred times, you forget how special it is, even if it’s a photograph taken from the surface of a barren planet five light years away, by an AI-controlled probe. Jupiter is Jupiter; you forget it’s also hundreds of times the size of Earth, an immense swirling sphere of storms, a world of endless clouds and wind. The Chereni don’t have that problem because, as I said, the poets named the stars.
Their names are systematic; they are precise. They classify objects as rigorously as we do, and though they slice their classifications a bit differently, they use mostly the same basic parameters. But every name for an alien world, or a distant sun in a Cheren language contains a little fragment of awe. They have nothing so banal as the Crab Nebula here at Iparaha, because the first time a Chereni saw it, she saw it through a powerful telescope, and to her it was as if she had seen a forest made of fire. So they named it Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, and that’s how it’s referred to in every encyclopedia, database, and scientific paper since. When they saw the Eagle Nebula, to them, too, it looked something like a great bird of prey sheltering newborn stars. They named it Cuizigan, after the devouring mother of myth, and they added the epithet, Mother of Stars. The planets of their home system are given names a little more mundane, but still evocative of their natures: Taius, the Ice-Clad, Vethrin of the Shroud, Ardal the Broken, and Gorhas, the Desert. Some names are long, nearly unwieldy; some are short and pithy. But every time they speak of these things, they use the name in full. I asked one of my interlocutors why, and she did a Chereni shrug. “Tradition,” she said. “But also this: it reminds us that these are the faces of nature at its wildest and strongest, and the appropriate feeling toward such beauty is always awe.”
Naturally, when Chereni physics and astronomy advanced to the point where true cosmology became a field of study, this habit of poetic astronomical nomenclature was extended to cosmological matters as well. Because actual telescopic astronomy was so hobbled by Cheren’s atmosphere, the two actually developed hand-in-hand for much of the last three centuries. Just as we use metaphorical handles to deal with astrophysical phenomena beyond our comprehension, so do they; but I must give the Chereni credit. Theirs are far more beautiful. There is nothing so mean or naked as “the Big Bang” or the “steady-state model” in Chereni cosmology. They call the former Talasendrion, the ancient word their gnostics use for the birth of God. Sometimes, also, I have seen it named the Elemental Fire, but I believe this more usually corresponds to what we call Planck epoch. The latter is Choraselos, the Universe of Order; your opinion may vary on whether it is an appropriate name, but to the Chereni it carries all of the weight of the hope of a knowable and comfortable universe which inspired it there, as here. Supernovae, I am told, are given a dozen different names depending on the type, but they are grouped together within the “ephemeral and trembling stars,” which include also novae and some variable stars. Among stellar remnants, they speak of white dwarfs, “the white and dying flame,” neutron stars as “the mighty anchor-stones of the sky,” and for black holes they have a word which alludes to the ancient Cheren fear of oblivion, which my companion, shuddering, declined to speak aloud.
You may think that science among humans can be poetic, and until I came to Iparaha, I thought so, too. Certainly, we have our occasional turns of phrase; I am reminded of the old Hubble image, which was given an almost Chereni title, “The Pillars of Creation.” We have occasionally named the surfaces of our worlds with something approaching their majesty: the Labyrinth of Night, on Mars; or the Ocean of Storms. But these names are either informal (as for the Pillars), or rendered distant and sterile by languages whose use connotes all things Scientific and Rational, all things seperated from Emotion and Art. The odd popularizer of science has tried to bridge the gap: Sagan, for instance, when he wrote that bit about “what men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but not if he were an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia?” But Sagan wasn’t really a poet, or not a very good one, and his attempt to reclaim something of poetic majesty for astronomy, though admirable, was not quite up to snuff.
But, ah! The Chereni astronomers could put Shakespeare to shame. I can’t read the language they use here at Iparaha very well—it’s logographic, like Chinese, though they do have terminals that display phonetic symbols for children, and that’s mostly what we’ve been relying on. So I’ve struggled through a few astronomical papers that my hosts have provided. Jesus, Mara, you should read these papers. Hell, even just their encyclopedias. Just as ours tend to adopt the scientific tone when writing about scientific matters, so their adopt the poetic tone when writing about astronomy, or astrophysics. We may speak of the Crab Nebula as a remnant of a supernovae, a pulsar’s nebula in the direction of Taurus. The Chereni speak of Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, whose boughs of a thousand colors reach toward their father, the corpse of a shattered star that sings his death-song in the radio frequency, whose music causes his children to weep and burn. I can’t do it justice, really. There’s a specific vocabulary of usage here: the word they use for “weep” recalls the blue of synchronotron radiation. Their words for “radio” and “frequency” have nothing of the connotation we give them, of technology and wavy imagined lines. In all my years working in astronomy, or teaching it, I have seen nothing like the Chereni papers, and felt nothing like the awe their scientist-poets induce. Mara, I’ve never wept while reading about exoplanets before—but that’s what the Chereni have reduced me to.
I’m working on preparing a short paper on the Chereni approach to astronomy; I expect I could probably get it published in one of the Martian cultural journals. I’d like to try to translate a couple of articles, too, but honestly, I’m just not sure English as we speak it now is up to the task. Our technical vocabulary is—well, too technical. I yearn for a form of the language that could be stripped of the legacy of the industrial revolution, recast in a form where progress and logical positivism weren’t baked into every Greco-Latin syllable at the expense of sorrow, and beauty, and art. Then, perhaps, I could begin to tell you of what the Chereni know of the serene beauty of Andromeda, or the achingly sad yearning they see in the redshifted galaxies at the cosmic horizon; or the bewitching mystery of the Great Attractor, or the loneliness and the silence of the Boötes Void. But alas! We never let our poets explain the universe to us. We will have to let the Chereni do it for them.
Dr. Renée Ishikawa
University of New Berlin
Department of Astronomy