A group of woke astronomers is working to rename two neighbors of the Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, because explorer Ferdinand Magellan should now be canceled.
According to astronomer Mia de los Reyes and some of her colleagues, Magellan, the leader of the first expedition to successfully circumnavigate the globe, must be wiped from memory because he “enslaved and killed Indigenous people encountered on the voyage.”
I and many other astronomers believe that astronomical objects and facilities should not be named after Magellan, or after anyone else with a violent colonialist legacy. We would like the International Astronomical Union—the body in charge of naming astronomical objects—to rename the Magellanic Clouds. We hope other astronomical institutions, particularly the consortia that manage the 6.5-m Magellan telescopes and the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, will also revisit the use of Magellan’s name.
Names reflect community values. Naming objects, buildings, and places after people has long been a way for society to honor individuals for their discoveries, their accomplishments, or the values they symbolize. Magellan made no astronomical discoveries, and for many, he continues to be a symbol of imperialist and anti-Indigenous violence.
When we uphold the names of people, such as Magellan, whose lives and legacies have actively caused harm, we alienate the communities who have been harmed. The communities that suffered because of Magellan have rich astronomical traditions that are often less valued than Western ones. Even within the field of professional astronomy, the repercussions of Spanish colonization continue to this day. For example, I am the first woman of primarily Filipino descent to become an astronomy professor in the United States, in part because lack of access to resources has historically prevented Filipinos from participating in astronomy research.
Astronomers like to say that “the night sky belongs to everyone.” If we truly believe that, shouldn’t we honor that ideal when we name the objects in this shared space? Shouldn’t we be deliberate about the words we use to describe the cosmos? After all, our job is to tell the story of the Universe—and as with all stories, the way we tell it matters.
Science News reports that more than 100 astronomers have expressed interest in the campaign with a goal of bringing a proposal to the International Astronomical Union for a vote on the name change.
Who will the woke police come after next?
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