How It Feels To Name The Largest Thing In The Universe Professor David Nawa‘a Napoleon on naming the supercluster of galaxies, Laniakea

What would you do if someone from the University of Hawaii said, “Hey, we’ve discovered that Earth isn’t where we thought it was, that it’s actually in a supercluster of galaxies and this cluster is like 100 times bigger than we originally thought and we need a name for this thing and can you name it?” Where would you even begin?

But since David Nawa‘a Napoleon—the chair of languages, linguistics and literature and professor of Hawaiian language at Kapiolani Community College—is used to naming things, he just took it in stride.

“You know, I didn’t think much of it. [...] I just feel that it was more my kuleana to the area that I’m working in that I name it and was given the opportunity to create these names. That it was my responsibility to the land, the sky, to native Hawaiian people to show that, should an opportunity come up, we need to do something.”

But naming programs at KCC is a little different than naming something containing the mass of 100 million billion suns. So what did that feel like? And how did he come up with the name heard ’round the universe: Laniakea?

PROFESSOR NAPOLEON: I kind of just worked with being native Hawaiian, knowing that there’s something bigger and greater besides just us and the islands we live on. But I wasn’t given that much information; they had a name they were tossing around, “aina nunui.” And I’m thinking, no. That isn’t good. It just means “big land.”

But I replied the same day.

It’s not too difficult, when you really gaze up in the sky. I know I did go outside. Just being outside and, I don’t know, I really think there’s just a lot of other people—my ancestors, for example, who’ve passed it on. When it’s something big and you ask for help in naming something, they’re usually always willing to appear or to give you an idea of what it should be named. I always have opportunities to name things, and I tell them, I’m just the hand that holds the pen and writes it down, it’s really not me. It’s just my ancestors that give me — I see myself as a medium to ask and get what I need.

What’s my preferred definition of Laniakea? It’s so difficult, because there are so many meanings to it. When I see the name, I really think of sky father being the supreme ruler. In the sense that “lani,” even though it does mean heaven it also means chief. And “akea” references Wakea, the sky father. He’s really the one guiding us, as people who just live on the Earth, and with the movement of the stars, really shows us the way to where we need to go, where we’re going.

When the news came out, I was thinking of all the people on Hokulea, of how they’re constantly gazing up at the heavens and trying to navigate their way around the world. It’s really a great sign that it came out at this time, specifically because they’re really looking up at Laniakea and traversing the world on a canoe in the middle of the ocean and traveling.

But today, when I googled it, I was thinking, OK laniakea. What’s happening. The thing that used to pop up on google was the street, or Laniakea, the beach on the north shore. Today when I googled it, the entire page was just about the supercluster of galaxies, and I thought, holy crap. I really didn’t think it was that big of a thing until I googled it. And I just kind of freaked out a little bit. But you know, it is truly an honor.

It’s just my little sweet potato added to the potluck we have everyday.

FYI, here’s what Professor Napoleon just named:

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