The importance of definitions – an official Peake

By education, I’m an astrophysicist. And I live on the Isle of Wight – home to the manufacture and testing of British rocket, Black Knight, in the 1960s.

So today’s launch of British astronaut, Tim Peake, to the International Space Station has had me super-excited.

Tim is, according to BBC News and others, the first official UK astronaut. Many have responded asking what about Helen Sharman.

The problem is how ‘official’ is being defined and interpreted. Peake is the first British person to go to space as part of a mission involving UK government money. That’s what makes him ‘official’.

Sharman’s mission did not have UK government funding. And other Brits took US citizenship in becoming astronauts. Some probably feel that ‘official’ is being used to distinguish – wrongly – Peake from those who took that citizenship.

Being able to describe something as a first is virtually PR practice 101. So it’s no wonder that much has been made of Peake being first in some way.

But it’s vital that any qualifier is unambiguous. For Peake, ‘official’ clearly isn’t quite cutting it, given the confusion.

For those working with data, it’ll be a familiar problem. For example, I’ve posted before about the issue of Essex not being Essex – or rather there being an Essex and Total Essex.

As communicators, we always have to ask ourselves – what will others think we mean if we say X. And, maybe sometimes, we have to rein in our hyperbolic tendencies. That said, I love the (spoof?) news item describing Peake as the first Sussex man in space. (Now is that Sussex or Total Sussex?)


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