Galaxies are like people

By Julianne Dalcanton | September 18, 2008 4:45 am

There’s an old chestnut in astronomy — “Galaxies are like people. They’re only normal until you get to know them.” I thought it might be due to Sandy Faber, but decided to execute some google-fu to see if I could track down the provenance of the quote.

It turns out that the internet thinks there are lots of ways that galaxies are like people:

Galaxies are like people: the better you get to know them, the more peculiar they often seem. (from the always awesome Sydney van den Bergh)

Galaxies are like people. Thanks to gravity, they like living in groups.

Spiral galaxies are like people: they fray as they age.

Galaxies are like people. They grow when they’re young and stop growing when they settle into adulthood.

Galaxies are like people: they depend on both genetics and environment. (also from Sydney)

Galaxies are like people: they are born, they live and they die.

These are actually all pretty decent analogies, but I have a feeling we haven’t even begun to tap the potential of this framework. “Spiral galaxies are like people: most have two arms.” “Galaxies are like people. They grow in mass as they age.” “Galaxies are like people. Sometimes they eject gas when they’ve eaten too much.”

However, people are not so much like galaxies, only turning up one hit:

Great people are like galaxies. Their hearts are big black holes pulling everything in.

I can’t figure out if that’s supposed to be a good or bad thing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Science and the Media
  • nakee

    The physic variant of your mama is so fat jokes ?:)

  • astropixie

    fantastic find, julianne!!

    galaxies are like people: you have to search beyond what they eye can easily see to really understand them.

  • Adrian Burd

    Galaxies depend upon “genetics”? Mendelian genetics maybe, at a stretch. Molecular genetics? Hardly. Poor analogy.

  • Julianne

    Adrian — If you interpret the “genetics” bit as “nature vs nurture”, rather than, “When two galaxies meet and fall in love, they have a special way of mixing their DNA”, you have something that works reasonably well.

  • Jesse

    Not everything has to be good or bad. I think it was the most poetic of the bunch.

  • riemann

    Galaxies are like people, if it has a ring you know life treated it roughly?

  • Jesse

    The corollary being of course, “I like my (men/women) like I like my galaxies: ____”
    – “I like my women like I like my galaxies: Hot and attractive.”
    “I like my men like I like my galaxies: massive.”

  • Xave

    Soylent Green is galaxies.

  • Julianne

    I totally was thinking about Soylent Green too, but couldn’t get past the fact that galaxies are merely _like_ people, they aren’t actually people. I guess Soylent Yellow would work, since it’s like Soylent Green, which is people.

  • Ian Paul Freeley

    I’m just glad to see someone else wasted their afternoon surfing the web.

    Galaxies are like a box of chocolates, you never know what mass to light ratio you’re going to get.

    I like my men like I like my galaxies…
    kinematically heated
    bar unstable

  • John R Ramsden

    Julianne wrote “Great people are like galaxies. Their hearts are big black holes pulling everything in.”

    In his classic 1918 book Eminent Victorians
    Lytton Strachey included hilariously barbed biographical vignettes of several famous people of the preceding century.

    Although British Prime Minister William E Gladstone wasn’t one of the subjects, he crops up several times, and in one of the accounts (General Gordon I think) there is a wonderfully vivid and prescient description of Gladstone’s devious mind, which is compared to a swirling cloud of incandescent gas, layer after layer, with a black hole at it’s centre. It goes on for several lines and really could have been lifted directly from one of today’s popular astronomy books!

    A critic called A N Wilson recently wrote an interesting book of the same name, which is more impartial and goes some way to salvaging reputations so subtly and influentially savaged by Strachey.

  • Adrian Burd


    If the quote had been something like “Galaxies are like people, their character is a mix of nature and nurture”, then it would have worked. Use of the word genetics causes the reader to stretch the meaning of the word too far. Just as physicists get (rightly) annoyed at biologists/amateur philosophers and others who abuse the terminology of that subject, biologists and geneticists react likewise. Some uses of terminology (like the descriptions of Gladstone that John shared) are suitable, some are not. As a theoretical physicist who works a lot with biologists, I found myself wondering what the mRNA is, where are the GACT bases etc. To me, and I suspect most biologists, the original phrase causes only a strong jarring sensation
    rather than a “oh yes, I can see how that works” reaction. So I stick by my original claim, that particular example was a bad analogy.


  • Paul Duffield

    Galaxies are like people, they’re mostly empty space!

  • James

    Or, taking a variation on the above…

    “If galaxies weren’t people, seems like an awful waste of space.”

    Thank you!

  • Tod R. Lauer

    The quote about the “normal” properties of galaxies and people comes from Virginia Trimble in 1986 at the two-week “Nearly Normal Galaxies” workshop in Santa Cruz, which was led by Sandy Faber. I had thought that the title was somewhat ignorant, as at the time there was a tremendous explosion in what we were learning about galaxies, and what ever we had thought “normal” was was based on old and poorly informed ideas. It was clear that Virginia was having none of this, and she started off a session that she was chairing with the words, “Normal is somebody you don’t know very well.” or something very close to this. I was delighted by this very direct expression of what I was feeling, and have used it many many times in the 22 years since then…

  • Kai

    Galaxies are like people, 90% of them you can never ever see.

    Galaxies are like lovers, when two collide it’s a long drawn out mess. Three is absolute chaos.

    Galaxies are like political pundits, you only see the loudest due to malmquist bias.

    Rupert Murdoch is like a cD galaxy, once it gets a taste it can’t help but gobble up everything in sight.

    Galaxy mergers are like American party politics, it’s only the hot gas that collides.

    Galaxies are like people, the majority aren’t very bright.

  • Kai

    I’ve got more, these ones not as good:

    Galaxies are like moderns, drifting away from each other faster and faster.

    Galaxies are like honors students, if they weren’t always moving they would collapse.

  • Kai

    I just. can’t. stop.

    Compact blue galaxies are like celebrity look-a-likes, they’re often mistaken for stars.

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  • ts

    Galaxies are like great stripteasers — they know how not to reveal all the way in order to titillate and sustain the desires of those who want to know and see all the way.

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