Starry Night over the Rhone (the “other Starry Night”), by Vincent van Gogh

Last week, my co-workers and I were discussing points of knowledge. The phrase “a thousand terms of knowledge” popped up. It was apparently an off-the-cuff mingling of “a thousand points of light” with “points of knowledge” and with one of the topics of the moment, thesaurus terms.

I couldn’t resist following up on the mixture, which has a precedent of sorts in an earlier TaxoDiary blog posting by Marjorie Hlava. That posting ends with this paragraph:

“We librarians and information specialists get to view anarchy in the universe more often than other people do. And we are the ones who have the job of putting the universe into some sort of order. With a thousand points of knowledge.”

Universe. Order. Points. Light. The concepts of “universe and “order” lead inexorably to how we make sense of the cosmology of the physical universe. And what are the universe’s “points of light”? As far as the physical universe is concerned, those would be stars.

A comparison to stars is what speechwriter Peggy Noonan had in mind when she co-authored the speech first mentioning a thousand points of light. The context is “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” To stretch the metaphor, might we think of a thesaurus as “a brilliant diversity”? With terms serving as the individual sources of illumination?

One often speaks of stars being “spread” or “scattered” throughout the sky. Even without a telescope, in a dark sky you can see thousands of stars. How does one make sense of them? By arranging them into categories, of course. The first categories of stars were constellations: physical, visible groupings with individual names and attributes. Many of the earliest constellations from ancient times are still recognized by the International Astronomical Union and are still used by numerous professional and amateur astronomers for identifying individual stars and regions of interstellar space. And popular culture still makes reference to the grouping of constellations used to map the sun’s travels: the zodiac.

The knowledge organization role that constellations have served for thousands of years is reflected in their metaphoric use in literature. There’s a frequently quoted sentence in The Fault in Our Stars, a best-selling novel by John Green: “My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.” Green explains that he based the metaphor on “the idea that constellations are a way of constructing meaning and organization from a disorganized and arbitrary universe.”

As early civilizations struggled to make sense of the universe, constellations inevitably made their way into the early star catalogs, which could be thought of as simple taxonomies. These catalogs date back at least as far as the 12th century BC, when the first known Babylonian star catalog was written on clay tablets. In later centuries, development and use of similar quasi-taxonomies continued; ancient people who had star catalogs include the ancient Greeks, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, and Egyptians.

Through the centuries, astronomers have continued to develop star catalogs. Meanwhile, astronomical knowledge has grown, um, astronomically, and astronomers have recognized various types and subtypes of stars and star systems. (This is fortunate, partly because modern telescopes can detect billions and billions of stars. BTW, it was Johnny Carson, not Carl Sagan, who coined the phrase “billions and billions”.) As these types and subtypes are incorporated into the cataloging of stars, the catalogs have become more and more like taxonomies.

And yes, there are several outright taxonomies and thesauri that cover stars, star systems, star types and subtypes (and subtypes of those), and individual stars. One of these is the Unified Astronomy Thesaurus (UAT), which Access Innovations helped develop, along with the American Institute of Physics [] and other scientific organizations. The screenshot below shows just a portion of the taxonomic treatment of the “Stars” branch.









These terms and relationships can be illuminating (for both professional and amateur astronomers) in a figurative sense. And if you consider how stars look from the earth, or how small yet illuminating each star is in relation to the whole universe, the multitude of terms literally does cover a thousand points of light.

Barbara Gilles, Taxonomist
Access Innovations