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Maps

posted Mar 6, 2015, 3:56 PM by Mark Showalter
When the New Horizons team started discussing the themes we hoped to use for the names on Pluto and Charon, one word kept coming up: "exploration". Perhaps this is not a surprise as we watch our spacecraft enter uncharted territory. Nevertheless, I have been struck by the way that this one theme permeates so much of human culture. The oldest great work of literature is The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back some 4000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. It is an adventure story. The same is true of last week's movie blockbuster. The medium may be different, but the themes are the same. Why? Wouldn't most of us be better off if we just stayed home?


Exploration is in our DNA. After our species arose in Africa, some of us left for the forbidding cold of Europe. From there, we traveled on to Asia, Oceania, across the Pacific, and into the New World. The human species has an unceasing need to move on. As soon as we finish drawing a map, we feel the need to walk off it, to find out what lies beyond its boundaries.

Exploration is in our mythology. Where our knowledge and experience end, our restless imaginations have kept us moving onward. We imagine journeys long before we take them.

Exploration is in our history. We travel to distant places, sometimes for no apparent purpose. Galapagos. Antarctica. Everest. The outcome might be profound or tragic. We never know beforehand. We go anyway.

Exploration is in our nature still. We have glimpsed what lies beyond the thin outer shell of our tiny planet. Today, our maps have a third dimension, up.

On Tuesday, July 14th, a machine built by human hands will fly past Pluto. From a distance of nearly five billion kilometers, the New Horizons spacecraft will send back to us the first closeup images of that distant world and its five moons. We cannot predict what we will see. Nevertheless, one of our first responses will be no different from that of our ancient ancestors: we will draw a map.

Maps do not just show us the lay of the land; they give us the language to talk about it. Instead of saying, "that very tall mountain in Nepal," we can say, simply, "Everest." Or maybe we say "Sagarmāthā" or "Chomolungma".

These names tell us something more. They tell us a little bit about who we were at the moment we became aware of that tall mountain in Nepal. Westerners named it after Sir George Everest, a Welsh surveyor of India in the 1800s. The people around Nepal used more primal names, meaning "Earth Mother" or "Holy Mother". Nomeclature—the naming of things—is quirky that way.

In July, we will all see Pluto together. We will all talk about it together. We should all put the names on its map together. Some of those names will be primal. Some will be timeless. Others, like that of one 19th-century Welsh surveyor, may eventually become obscure historical footnotes. Regardless, these names will document the things that were important to us on that day in 2015 when we all first saw Pluto.