Goddesses and Scientists, Heroines and Nobles: Visualizing the Women of Venus
A recent Data Analysis and Visualization graduate explores the stories behind the names of Venus’ surface features.
Kavya Beheraj (M.S. ’23, Data Analysis and Visualization) admits she’s a little obsessed with the planet Venus. In a recent column for Axios, where she is a data visualization editor, she explained that nearly every feature on the surface of Venus is named after a famous woman, mythological heroine, or goddess, with female first names from around the world thrown into the mix.
The column was based on her Naming Venus project, which allows users to explore the planet’s 1,976 named surface features, such as craters, mountains, and plains, as well as the sources of their names. You can learn that farra, or pancake-like flat structures, on Venus are named after water goddesses — like Flosshilde, a German water nymph, and Seoritsu, a Japanese stream goddess.
The project was Beheraj’s capstone for her master’s degree in the Graduate Center’s Data Analysis and Visualization program. She credits the program with helping her to get her position at Axios. “Early in the program I went through the interactive data visualization sequence, and that gave me this really great portfolio of work,” Beheraj says. “The program basically helped me switch careers a little bit and pivot into data journalism.”
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Before joining Axios, Beheraj worked as a data analyst for a nonprofit focused on homelessness. “It was similar, but I have a lot of interest in telling stories with data,” she says. “So this new job is a much better fit for me.”
Many of the projects she completed for the program were focused on using information to tell stories, particularly the interactive data visualization classes taught by Professor Aucher Serr. “We did a narrative project and an exploratory data viz project,” Beheraj says. “Those opened my eyes to the blending of data with story and how it enhances meaning.”
As for a certain New Yorker article about the decline of the English major, Beheraj agrees with those who say the humanities are not only still relevant but also expanding. “I think data journalism is really an interesting expression of humanities,” she says. “It’s this combination of computational thinking and knowledge of science and statistics, with the knowledge of history and culture and people that give meaning to the data. News organizations are more and more recognizing the need for people who can give meaning and context to data, and what gives it meaning is often the humanities.”
Naming Venus draws equally on data, history, and culture. Beheraj was first inspired to work on the project after attending a talk on scientific communication by the information designer Eleanor Lutz, who created a topographical map of Venus and noted that most of its features were named after women. “I had this desire to tell the stories of these famous women of Venus,” Beheraj says. “I explored that data over and over again while I was at the Graduate Center, in multiple classes.”
As she researched the history of planetary nomenclature, she became interested in the motivations for naming features of other worlds. One purpose, of course, is purely practical; it’s hard to talk about planetary features if they aren’t named. But Beheraj also sees the process as humanizing. “It relates these alien worlds back to our home,” she says. “And I think that’s so important. When you look up at the stars, who do you see? Do you see yourself reflected in these other worlds? That got me to look into the origins behind the names.”
As for Venus, Beheraj found that representation is far from equally distributed. Of the 434 surface features named between 1979 and 2006 for famous women writers, scientists, and other notable figures, nearly 58% were from Europe and 26% were from North America, compared with less than 1% from South America. “The people doing the naming came in with their biases,” Beheraj says.
Which in many ways aligns with the classical ideal of the planet’s own namesake, she notes, and the many contradictions associated with it. Or, as Beheraj recently put it, “I’ll be spending this Women’s History Month thinking about how an inhospitable hellscape planet that destroyed a lander in 23 minutes is culturally also the feminine ideal.”
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