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We even talk like we're from space

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NASA/Handout/Reuters/File

(Read caption) This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image captures the tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7,500 light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation Carina.

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Cultural references to astronomy abound in movies, books and particularly in the English language. Of course, I’m steeped in space and astronomy, so you’d expect ME to use terms like “light-year” and “1/r2” and “cosmological” and things like that. But, it’s everywhere. I bet even YOU have used some astronomy-generated term lately.

Just as we came from the ashes of old dead stars, sometimes the words we say also come from the stars. Take “light-year” for example. It’s really a term that we use to talk about how far a beam of light travels in a year at a constant speed of 299, 792, 458 meters per second.

The total distance (if you do the math right) turns out to be 9,460,730,472,580 kilometers (or 5,878,630,000,000 miles). That’s how astronomers use the term, as in “The Andromeda Galaxy lies some 2.5 million light-years away” or “The light from that nebula traveled some 1,500 light-years to get here.”

In everyday language, you often hear the term used like this: ” He was light-years ahead of his time.” In this case, it seems like the speaker is using a unit of distance to refer to someone being advanced in some way. Not exactly a proper usage, but people get the idea.

IN PICTURES: NASA's journey into the universe

Another word is “cosmic”, which scientists usually use in terms like “cosmic rays”, which are those little high-speed particles moving through space (and matter, including us). The only way to detect them is by how they affect the matter they collide with.

So, if a stray cosmic ray hits some solution in a special detector, it causes a little flash of light, and we can detect that and the cosmic ray’s trail and say “Aha, a cosmic ray just pinged us!” But, in general use, the term “cosmic” is from an older Greek term kosmikos, which is related to how we refer to the whole universe, the vastness “out there” stretching to the limits of the known universe.

And, nearly every day, you can hear someone say “Wow, cosmic!” or “Thats really cosmic!” Usually they’re expressing their awe and admiration of something in a very slangy way. Like, totally cosmic, dude.

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“Solar” is another word you hear a lot, usually in terms of “solar heating” or “solar power”. It refers to the Sun, which is also known as Sol, and hence, heat from our star becomes “solar heating” and you can capture it with those panels and eventually you get electricity.

That’s a pretty obvious one. “Lunar”, which refers to our Moon, which is also known as Luna, gets corrupted to the term “looney” — which can mean “crazy” or “whack” or, if you’re in Canada, is a unit of currency. For the trifecta, I suppose you could use a looney to buy a ticket to a cartoon by “Looney Tunes” and perhaps the Moon will show up in one of the sequences.

One of my favorite (and incorrect) usages of astronomy terminology is one made famous in Star Wars IV (which was the first Star Wars movie, but is now the fourth one in the series). The line is “… it’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”

Science-literate folks immediately jumped on that one because parsec is a unit of distance in astronomy. It’s roughly 3.2 light-years long. It’s not a unit of speed.

But, apologists for the movie’s obvious mistake in the script have now pointed out that it really just Han Solo bragging that he’d found a short-cut to the planet Kessel — rather than taking the usual route of 18 parsecs, he found a shorter route. Okay… I suppose that’s a reasonable way to explain an obvious script lapse. And, it did teach a new word to folks who hadn’t studied astronomy before.

Of course, we have many other usages in our languages — the terms “stellar” and “star” point out the good qualities in a person or action, as in “She’s the star of her own show” (she’s the brightest or a luminary), and “his stellar qualities were apparent to all (to describe the good, outstanding qualities of a person). How many of us have ever used the term “black hole” to describe something, as in “That office is a black hole of information” (meaning a place where no information can escape)?

From space science we get a whole galaxy (if you’ll excuse the expression) of language idioms. One of my favorites is to say “Houston, we have a problem” whenever I encounter an obstacle or a problem in everyday life. I’ve also heard people (mostly on planes taxing down the runway) say “And, we have liftoff” at wheels-up time.

You could probably spend days (or at least hours) thinking of other usages, which just goes to show you that space and astronomy are reflected in our language. And I think that’s just cosmic!

Carolyn Collins Petersen blogs at TheSpacewriter's Ramblings.

View all of the TheSpacewriter's Ramblings posts on the Monitor .

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IN PICTURES: NASA's journey into the universe


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