Technology, History, and Place

Category: Quick thoughts

Quick thought: History and rocketry

Demo-2 rocket launch

The Demo-2 mission lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 30, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.)

Almost two months ago, SpaceX and NASA launched a rocket with two astronauts on board from Florida to the International Space Station. The mission, dubbed Demo-2 or “Launch America,” got a lot of media coverage, in a media landscape that was desperate to talk about literally anything besides the Coronavirus pandemic that had brought economic and social life to a standstill in the United States and much of the rest of the world.

Even without Coronavirus, Demo-2 likely still would have gotten plenty of attention. Not only was this the first time astronauts were launched into space from the United States since the Space Shuttle was retired nine years ago, it was also a very cool mission. The rocket was a SpaceX Falcon 9, which has a reusable first stage that lands tail-first on a barge in the ocean. (Except for the Solid Rocket Boosters of the Space Shuttle, first stages of rockets generally fall into the ocean and are never recovered.) The spacecraft that the astronauts rode in, SpaceX Dragon, has a sleek interior design that seems to have gotten aesthetic inspiration from Star Trek.

Both NASA and SpaceX had public affairs announcers that covered the mission, and they gushed about how this mission was “one for the history books,” and similar phrases. This was the first time that a private company had launched astronauts to the International Space Station (albeit with funding and lots of other support from NASA), but otherwise I’m not sure what was really historic about the mission. As David Edgerton points out in The Shock of the Old (2007), rocketry on the whole hasn’t been all that significant in human history. Just because something is visible to the public—in this case, through newspapers, broadcast television, Life magazine, National Geographic, NASA.gov, Twitter, and YouTube—doesn’t mean that it is historically significant. I would add that coolness also does not equal historical significance.

If anything, the Demo-2 mission was one for the space trivia books, not history books. I doubt that anybody but space enthusiasts will remember that this mission even happened 10 or 20 years from now.

Quick thought: Alternate history and historical contingency

In Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, the Axis powers have won World War II and the former United States is occupied by Nazi Germany (in the east) and Imperial Japan (in the west), with a demilitarized zone in the middle. In this alternate-reality 1962, the Japanese have established their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, while the Nazis have committed genocide in Russia and Africa and are sending space missions to the moon and Mars.

The Man in the High Castle is a story of historical contingency. Although it is often tempting to think of historical events as inevitable, they usually are not. It was not inevitable that the Allies would win World War II, or that they would win in the way that they did. There were many possible outcomes.

Dick shows this by introducing an alternate history novel within his alternate history novel. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by an author in the demilitarized Rocky Mountain States, narrates an Axis defeat, but not what actually happened in our world. President Roosevelt does not seek reelection for an unprecedented third term in 1940 (as he did in real life), but instead he is succeeded by Rexford Tugwell, who cunningly saves the US fleet from destruction in Pearl Harbor and leads the country to victory against the Axis. At the end of the war, Adolf Hitler is tried and executed (rather than committing suicide in his Berlin bunker).

Some of Dick’s characters doubt the possibility of an Allied victory in World War II, but we the readers know that it was not only possible, it happened in real life.

Quick thought: Loanwords from one language to another

Something I’ve noticed when studying languages is that loanwords from that language in English don’t always mean the same thing in the donor language as they do in English.

An example: “jungle” comes from a Hindustani word meaning forest. In India, a jungle could be any forest—from the dense tropical forests that the name connotes in English, to the thorn-forests of central India, or even the coniferous forests of the foothills of the Himalaya.

I think we can all agree that this is a jungle.

I think we can all agree that this is a jungle. (Garo Hills, Meghalaya)

But what about this? It is a jungle in Hindi but not English. (Himachal Pradesh)

But what about this? It is a jungle in Hindi but not English. (Himachal Pradesh)

Another example: “sombrero” is of course a word that American English has picked up from Mexican Spanish, but again the word has a broader meaning in the donor language than in English. For English-speakers north of the border, a sombrero is a particularly Mexican kind of hat, with a very broad brim. But south of the border, a sombrero is any kind of hat—or at least, any kind of hat with a brim.

Now that is what I would call a sombrero. (Emiliano Zapato from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that is what I would call a sombrero. (Emiliano Zapata from Wikimedia Commons)

The hat your blogger is wearing is a sombrero in Spanish but not English. (Teotiuhuacán, Estado de México)

The hat your blogger is wearing is a sombrero in Spanish but not English. (Teotiuhuacán, Estado de México)

I think of the adoption of loanwords as a bit like technology transfer: the meaning of the word changes as it moves from one language to the next, just as the form and function of a technology have to change to fit the recipient culture.

In the case of both jungle and sombrero, the meaning of the word in English is linked to the culture that the word came from. India has its share of dense tropical forests, and Mexico has—or at least had—many of the traditional wide-brimmed hats. English already had a generic word for forest and hat, but it was in the market for a specific word to represent forests in (parts of) India and hats in Mexico.

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