Planet “Earth”: We Should Have Called It “Sea”

Arthur C. Clarke? Carleton Ray? Ann Henderson-Sellers? James E. Lovelock? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The water covering our planet makes it look like a blue marble in pictures taken from outer space. Roughly three-quarters of the surface is enveloped in H₂O in liquid or frozen form. The science fiction luminary Arthur C. Clarke suggested that the name “Earth” should be changed to “Ocean” or “Sea”. Would you please help to find a citation for this remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this recommendation located by QI appeared in the proceedings of a conference held in 1963. The prominent oceanographer Carleton Ray was then working at the New York Aquarium, and during the meeting he spoke about “The Scientific Need for Shallow-Water Marine Sanctuaries “. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We still view the sea as a limitless wilderness, which of course, it is not. We view the sea apart from the earth. We call this planet Earth, yet this is the only planet that has a sea. I think we should have called it “sea”, of course, but the naming is already done.

There was also evidence that Arthur C. Clarke suggested the name “Ocean”. See below for additional selected citations in chronological order.




Environmentalist James E. Lovelock is well-known for promulgating the Gaia hypothesis which suggests that Earth displays surprising self-regulatory properties. In 1979 Lovelock published “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth” which included the following: 2

As Arthur C. Clarke has observed: ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.’ Nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is sea, which is why those magnificent photographs taken from space show our planet as a sapphire blue globe, flecked with soft wisps of cloud and capped by brilliant white fields of polar ice.

In 1981 a conference on “Cosmochemistry and the Origin of Life” was held in Maratea, Italy. In an article of the proceedings the Physical Geography Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers reprinted the quotation attributed to Clarke with a footnote that pointed to Lovelock’s 1979 book. 3

Lovelock repeated the ascription to Clarke within a 1990 commentary printed in the journal “Nature” titled “Hands up for the Gaia hypothesis”: 4

Arthur Clarke’s notable comment, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when clearly it is Ocean”, illustrates the wisdom of a top-down view. Few have been privileged, as astronauts, to see the Earth in its splendour from above. But anyone can rise above dogma, scientific or religious, and look down to see and cherish a most seemly Earth.

In conclusion, QI believes that Carleton Ray may be credited with calling our home planet “Sea”. There is also substantive evidence via James Lovelock that Arthur C. Clarke called our planet “Ocean”. Perhaps these names were constructed independently. Currently, Ray maintains chronological precedence.

Image Notes: NASA image emphasizing the Pacific Ocean of planet Earth. Beach at sunset from kreuzfeld at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Mike Davis whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to the discussants who made useful comments and uncovered valuable citations: Mark Nicholes, Suzanne Watkins, and Claire. Special thanks to Thomas Fuller for accessing the 1963 citation. Also, thanks to Fred Shapiro for the pertinent entry in “The Yale Book of Quotations”.)

Notes:

  1. 1965, Scientific Use of Natural Areas, edited by Julia and Henry Field, (XVI International Congress of Zoology, Washington, August 20-27, 1963) Article VI: The Scientific Need for Shallow-Water Marine Sanctuaries by Carleton Ray of the New York Aquarium, Section: Remarks Delivered at Symposium, Quote Page 92, Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida. (Verified with scans; thanks to Thomas Fuller and the University of Maryland library system)
  2. 1979, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth by J. E. Lovelock (James E. Lovelock), Chapter 6: The Sea, Quote Page 84, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1983, Cosmochemistry and the Origin of Life: Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Study Institute held at Maratea, Italy, June 1-12, 1981, Editor: Cyril Ponnamperuma, Article: The Chemical Composition and Climatology of the Earth’s Early Atmosphere by A. Henderson-Sellers, Start Page 175, Quote Page 191, Publisher: D. Reidel Dordrecht, Holland. (Paperback reprint published in 2013)(Google Books Preview)
  4. 1990 March 8, Nature, Volume 344, Commentary: Hands up for the Gaia hypothesis by James E. Lovelock, Start Page 100, Quote Page 102, Column 3, Nature Publishing Group, London. (ProQuest SciTech Collection)