Ultima Thule, Thule

On 1 January 2019, New Horizons space probe passed Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. Almost every news report of the encounter says that the name means “beyond the edges of the known world.” But that is not exactly the case. Ultima Thule is not a vague, undefined location. It is a specific place in the North Atlantic, although exactly which place it refers to is uncertain to us today and various classical and medieval writers may have used the name to refer to different places. It has been used in the metaphorical sense that the news articles describe, but that’s not the name’s meaning. The metaphorical sense is akin to referring to Timbuktu, a very real place in North Africa, as metaphor for somewhere distant and inaccessible. 

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