The names of things in astronomy are quite random in origin and often quite awful for no good reason. Now, there are exceptions, but… In general. Wow. Are the astronomers who get to name things using up all their creativity in their analysis?
For some reason the names of things in astronomy have come up many times in the past couple weeks, and when faced with some really cool names from physics, I decided I just needed to blog about it.
So first there was the annoyance of learning there is a line of children’s plush toys that allow you to register the name of a star in a database astronomers and astronomy software will never utilize. This means there are now going to be little starry-eyed kids coming up at star parties, with starry butted toys, and asking, “Can you point at my star? I’m Mary Jane Doe.” And I’ll have to say, “No.” I already feel a sense of dread.
Stars generally have a whole series of names, but none of them are going to be based on your name. Instead they’ll be some HR number, HD number, some HIC, SAO, or AAVSO number. The brightest stars might have ancient names, but those names came from before we realized there are more stars than words in all the languages of the world. Today, the official governing body of astronomy, the International Astronomical Union, limits the naming of stars to things that are based on systems – numbers, coordinates, IDs – that are easy to use, easy to store, and easy to understand. While ‘Fred’ might make a good name for a star, the name ‘Fred’ doesn’t offer any information on the star, and ‘Fred’ will never be a real stars name. It just isn’t going to happen.
The irony is, there are many things in astronomy that have been named after people who had never really intended to get things named after them. There is the Tully-Fisher relation, the Hubble diagram, the Butcher-Oemler effect, and who could forget Newton’s laws? In each of these cases, the idea is named after the author of the peer reviewed paper that first took note of something new. It took time for Hubble 1929 to become Hubble’s law, but this is the way of the best works – once referenced enough times the Name Year reference becomes just Name. Many astronomers have a golden hope somewhere in their heart that their citations will grow into named theories. It’s possible for any of us.
As I write papers, the authors’ names become surrogates for entire concepts. The Galaxy Zoo project becomes Lintott et al. 08 and much to my dismay, Astronomy Cast becomes Gay et al 07. Admittedly, things could be far worse. The Gay Effect in galaxy evolution is something I hope never to discover. Any of you who know me in real life know there isn’t a homophobic bone in my body, but middle school was hell, and I do not wish for the snickering I dealt with as a youth to follow around the discoveries of my adult life. Should I ever work on a team that finds something remarkable, someone else will get to go first on that author list. If I want to have something named after me, I can want all I want, but I can’t make it happen – I can just increase the odds of the people I publish with through excellence and constant hard work.
Now an asteroid, those are fun. My friends Phil Plait and Chris Lintott both have rocks named after them, as do Rick Fienberg, David Levy and Mr Rogers (Complete list here). There is no Gay asteroid (although that type of fun I could get behind), and asteroid Pamela isn’t named after me. To get an asteroid named after you, you have to earn it by living the type of life that catches the attention of someone who discovers asteroids, and hope that they decide to offer up your name to the naming committee. Alternatively, you can catch the attention of someone who is bored. If an asteroid has been known for more than 10 years and no one has named it, anyone can petition the naming board with a name that isn’t obscene (which means I probably can’t have an asteroid named after me, but I’d really love be a fly on the wall if that conversation ever occurs). This also means anyone can search for a number (wiki works for this) of an asteroid that hasn’t been named, and submit, submit away.
So, names in astronomy either come from boring catalogs, from the evolution of references into nicknames, and silliness with petitions. There are also the occasional insults – like Big Bang – that catch on as permanent names. And then there are lame names, like accretion disks.
But sometimes names are cool.
This is what started all of this actually.
I was walking down the hallway earlier today and noted on one of the physics faculty doors a series of derivatives on a white board. As I watched, one of our grad students filled in after the question marks. Here is what it all read:
We need more equation names that remind us of breakfast food.