By Gary Greenberg
What's in a Name?
few years back, some middle school kids in Delray Beach, Florida,
questioned why our solar system doesn’t have its own name.
their own names. Planets have their own names. Most moons have their
own names. Even George W. Bush has his own name, kind of. So how come,
the kids asked, our solar system doesn’t?
it does. The Solar System is a
proper name. The problem is that other conglomerations of planets and a
star are generically called solar systems, so the students figured it
pretentious to call ours the Solar System as though
it were the only one.
Rather than just ponder this eternal question as
great thinkers like
philosophers and newspaper columnists might, the school kids actually
did something about it. They went ahead and picked a few alternate
names: Stars United, Planetasia, Helios and the Terran System.
not bad for amateurs, though Stars United
sounds too much like a British soccer team, Planetasia is a bit too
Disney, and Helios might be a good name for a cat but it just
seem to have enough mass for an entire solar system.
Terran System would fit the bill (the ultimate
criteria being that it would sound natural to hear Star
exclaim, “We’re running on dylethium crystal fumes
Captain, but with a
wee bit of luck I’ll get us back to the Terran System by the
commercial break!”) So Terran System would work. The problem
it’s a bit bland and, besides, the naming of an entire solar
simply much too big of a responsibility for a bunch of pre-pubescent
heavenly bodies should to be left up to
adults. I myself, as a writer of both fact and fiction, have named
numerous heavenly bodies in my day. My favorite was Dee Dee Kupp, a
stripper whose heavenly body was taken over by a space worm named Earl
(okay, so I’m better at naming strippers than space worms).
Fleming, creator of James Bond, was also good at naming heavenly
bodies. Pussy Galore is one example that pops into mind.
I personally wouldn’t mind living in a
solar system called Pussy Galore, I know some other people who might
mind, like the Queen of England and the pope. However, at the moment we
are not concerned with naming Marilyn Monroe-type heavenly bodies but
rather Jupiter and Saturn-type heavenly bodies. And the organization in
charge of that kind of thing is called the International Astronomical
Union, and specifically its Working Group for Planetary System
Nomenclature (not to be confused with its Small Bodies Names
Unfortunately, when the schoolkids inquired about
the naming of our solar system, the IAU pretty much refused to even
consider it. One reason this might be is the IAU has no precocious
pre-pubescent members. In fact, its members are all “PhDs and
according to the IAU web site.
any rate, Brian Marsden, then the associate
director at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, whose
length of title apparently allowed him to sit on both of the
naming councils, was quoted in a somewhat reputable South Florida
newspaper as saying there are more important things to worry about than
the naming of the solar system.
are some people with some strange schemes
for naming comets, names with numbers and other things,” he
said. “I think I've got bigger problems.”
No doubt Marsden is more concerned about comets
because they are one of the few astronomical phenomena that transcend
the world of science to touch the world of popular culture, which also
includes reality TV shows, rap music and Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband.
are good public relations devices for
astronomy because they are named after the person or people who first
see them and thus are the Lotto jackpots of the cosmos. Find one and
you are assured of immortality. Find one and you’ll see your
there in the stars along with Orion, Hercules and Kahoutek.
The nice thing about comets is that you don’t
have to be a PhD or beyond to stumble upon one. It’s
pre-pubescent amateur could do, and some comets have even been
discovered through binoculars. For example, here’s the actual
transcription of a conversation between a couple of comet-finders from
a few years back.
Wow, look at the tail on that heavenly body.
BOPP: Is it a comet?
No, it’s my neighbor. She left the drapes open again.
course, comets aren’t the only way to achieve
astronomical immortality. There are many organizations that will gladly
name one of the gazillion known stars after you so long as you have a
valid credit card number. The Cosmic Café also happens to
service for $9.95 (just for the star) or $99.95 (for the deluxe
package, including a commemorative star chart, authentic-looking
certificate and bag of genuine pretend stardust).
the IAU doesn’t condone the selling of star names and
guarantees that those names will never be recognized by anyone with a
PhD degree or beyond, the Cosmic Café’s position
is that a vast
majority of people in the world aren’t PhDs, let alone
"beyond," so it
really doesn't matter too much to them what the IAU says so long as
they feel as though they've secured a wisp of immortality in the
we’ve got a bigger issue to fry here, and that
is the naming - actually the renaming -- of our solar system. Those
school kids did come up with some decent names, but I think they were
missing a great opportunity. I mean, couldn’t we name the
the way we name just about everything these days? Couldn’t we
it to the highest bidder? Our solar system could be called the Nike
Universe, Coco-Cola Cluster, Blockbuster Planets or Trump Worlds. Or
how about the Microsoft System? Charge ‘em $100 billion or so
the money to the world food bank. That way, at least feeding a
corporate ego could fill some terrestrial tummies as well. And it
doesn't take a PhD or beyond to see the beauty in that!
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