An invisible star has a new name. In the unfathomably far outer solar system, in the Kuiper Belt, the NASA New Horizons probe encountered, passed close to and photographed a body with the romantic name “(486958) 2014 MU69”. Even here, four billion miles from the Earth, where heat is unknown, mindless political correctness can reach its fingers.
There no criticism from me of the International Astronomical Union, nor ever has been, and for NASA nothing but awed admiration. The concept of sending a probe so far and fast and reaching an invisible object with pinpoint accuracy goes anything we can imagine. The New Horizons team have achieved the unimaginable with the first exploration of a cold, classical Kuiper belt object.
Its new name is ‘Arrokoth’, which is a good name. ‘Arrokoth’ means ‘sky’ in the Powhatan/Algonquian language which used to be spoken in Maryland, where the team is based. It is good to hear at the new frontier an echo of a language once driven out of its ancient homeland, to hear its honour restored in this small way.
When first found though, observers gave (486958) 2014 MU69 the nickname “Ultima Thule”, and used that name for months. It is an uneven dumbbell shape and they even named one end “Ultima” and the other “Thule”. This name is of course a widely used metaphor for ‘a land beyond the farthermost’, and a natural thought when considering the farthermost object visited by man, or at least by his probes.
The came the objections.
The press release said that “Ultima Thule, one of Arrokoth’s first names, is a term used in ancient times in accordance with a place beyond the known world. However, the term was also used by Nazis and right-wing extremists when referring to a mythical place for the Aryan race.”
Here we have it – dead Nazis are ruining another thing for the rest of us. They have form in this: there is an ancient Indian symbol used not just in Hindu culture but across the world in many ages, usually with a positive, even celebratory implication and which became suddenly popular as a good-luck symbol in the west in the early twentieth century – but then the Nazis nicked it and it can never, ever be used without an implication of mass-murder drawn in the darkest corners of human nature. I do not even name it. It is irredeemable. I refuse to lose Thule though.
There is a better reason for not naming (486958) 2014 MU69 after Thule, because it is not the furthest humanity can reach and it will look daft when another body in the Kuiper Belt or the more distant Oort Cloud is found, and because I do not want astronomers purloining the name of Ultima Thule any more than I want murderous race-myth socialists having it.
For Longfellow this icy land as the ultimate destination was a vision of heaven:
Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.
The mystery land, the Θούλη described by Pytheas has had many interpretations. The description of Pytheas matches the coast of Norway most closely, but the Roman sailors who saw Shetland afar off named it Thule too, and later ages placed it about the Faroes, then Iceland, then Greenland, ever further off. Perhaps it is such a place that it should never be identified, so that it can remain a place of dreams, and then even the Kuiper Belt is not far enough.
Joanna Kavenna wrote a fascinating book on the identification and the myth of Thule, and travelled to many places that have been identified with it. She saw the ends of the Earth and spoke to people of many races and tongues, and met the name in ancient texts and poetry, and in modern poetry and art. She also found the lazy salons where proto-Nazis had met who wanted to claim Thule as a mythical Urheimat for their imagined pure Germanic race, but this was a minor aside at the fringe, and if there are modern loonies who follow it, frankly, they are not worth bothering with. The woke souls who forbid others from naming Ultima Thule are not opposing the neo-Nazis; they are empowering them, and such people should not be given the power to steal for themselves an ancient myth that belongs to all of Western culture.
- The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavanagh
- Alchemy: Writers on Truth, Lies and Fiction by Joanna Kavanagh, Benjamin Markovits, Gabriel Josipivici, Partou Zia, Anakana Schofield
- Ultima Thule by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- A Princess of Thule by Anthony Black
- Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Harry Grinspoon
- Chasing the Moon: The Story of the Space Race – from Arthur C. Clarke to the Apollo Landings by Robert Stone
- A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
- First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience by Rod Pyle