More than 100 words for snow
The first reference to Eskimo-Inuit peoples having multiple, nuanced words for snow was in the introduction to anthropologist/linguist Franz Boas’ “Handbook of American Indian Languages” (1911), written after studying the Inuit people of Baffin Island. He posited that the structure of language (sound, grammar, vocabulary, etc.) shapes a speaker’s view of the world.
But now consider the limitations of our language, the absence of descriptors when we attempt to understand and conceptualize what we refer to as the universe, a word that is understood but also accepted for its expansive vagueness. And so, when an event takes place such as the one that recently occurred, astronomers search for language to frame and explain what it is that has been discovered. They need more than 100 words for snow, so to speak.
Last April, scientists announced that at last they had captured an image of a stellar phenomenon that up until now had only been theoretical: a black hole, better described as a cosmic abyss, one so deep and dense not even light can escape it. Before now, black holes in space were the stuff of imagination, the geography of writers and artists mining the forgiving realm of science fiction, or expressed as computer model algorithms.
Now, suddenly, black holes have been revealed as a concrete image of a lopsided ring of red and yellow light, a donut hole of sorts, surrounded by interstellar gas and dust, delineating a red-eyed portal into which all matter is pulled, including light. One such eye has been discovered deep in the center of a galaxy known as Messier 87 (M87), some 55 million light-years from earth (in one year, light can travel some 6 trillion miles), meaning the distances in play are beyond extraordinary.
To capture the image of M87, 200 astronomers aimed an intercontinental collection of nine mountain-top telescopes, called Event Horizon, at the galaxy Virgo, home to M87, a black hole several billion times more massive than our sun. According to Einstein’s theory, it is a place where all matter, space and time come to an end, a tombstone, and has been referred to as a “behemoth of nothingness.” Its origin is unknown and what happens to the matter that falls into it is unknown and it’s at this point that astronomers and astrophysicists reach for the word “infinity.” These same scientists admit that we are not yet equipped to understand the universe’s confounding paradoxes.
However, despite its mystery, men and women across history have stood in the dead of night and gazed up at the stars with wonder and awe and perhaps trembling fear and contemplated the meaning and purpose of their own existence. And in so doing they have created a rich and nuanced and probing language, while attempting to give form to the formless. And thus we have created a narrative of ultimate explanations that are offered with conviction, accepted in faith, and exist in tandem and tension with science and astronomy.
If we allow our imaginations to wander ever outward into space and try to comprehend the existence of billions of stars in our own Milky Way, and then attempt to grasp the elusive fact that there are 100 billion galaxies beyond, how do we begin to find our way to meaning or purpose or comprehensible outcomes? And yet we watch the sun rise and ponder the day ahead. And perhaps it’s understandable that we find surcease in a constellation of baroque beliefs that promise that this life, held so dear, is indeed infinite and a superordinate being exists beyond the evidence, one for which we have far more than 100 words for snow, however written or spoken.
Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.