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Naming Worlds…

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Unless you’ve been living in a cave or at the bottom of the ocean this past week, you’ll have heard the Big News – that the most Earthlike worlds yet have been found by the incredible Kepler planet-hunting telescope. These two “Super Earths” are orbiting a very, very faraway star, so there’s no prospect of anyone setting off to see them in person for quite a while, but one day, one day…

As I listened to the announcement, streamed live on NASA TV, one of my first thoughts – after the intial “yaaay!” – was “For the love of god will someone PLEASE give these planets propper NAMES!!!”, because their current names, “Kepler 62e” and “Kepler 62f” just seem hopelessly, woefully, despairingly insufficient and yes, pathetic. They need names. Proper names.

Why? Isn’t in enough that they’ve been found? Isn’t that triumph enough?

Well, no, I don’t think so, I really don’t. Because if these really are worlds then we’re going to be talking, Tweeting, blogging and writing about them for a long time – certainly decades, probably centuries and very possibly millennia – so just referring to them as combinations of letters and numbers is ridiculous, frankly. What a waste of time. What a shortsighted approach.

But I think there’s an even more important reason for giving these – and other significant exoplanets already discovered – proper names. The public – who, it’s often and very conveniently forgotten – actually PAY for these incredible discoveries, through their taxes – simply won’t accept them, connect with them or identify with the significance of their discovery, until they’re given names.

Names make places seem real. They build a bridge between them and us. And this is especially true for places and objects out in space, and for the machines which we send out to explore space. I do a lot of Outreach work in the community, spending a lot of what I laughingly call my “free time” standing in front of crowds in drafty church halls, in school classrooms, in community centres and the like, “spreading the word” about astronomy, space exploration and science, and I can tell you for a fact – a FACT – that people need things to have names if they’re to acceopt and identify with them. While science types are comfortable with acronyms, and abbreviations, and bizarre combinations of numbers and letters, people “out there” are not. That’s just rubbish to them, gobbledygook, boffin-speak, yet more proof that aloof “scientists” don’t live in the real world and have no time or consideration for those who do. Introducing a picture as “A Hubble image of part of M17” will reward me with blank looks and rapidly glazing-over eyes. Introducing the same picture as “We call these ‘The Pillars of Creation’…” triggers a much more positive response.

That’s why  it is my firm belief that until we start giving these incredible exoplanets names they will just remain abstract concepts for most people, something for “the experts” to get excited about and no-one else. They will remain “So what?” worlds for most people, not real worlds.

So, we need to start giving exoplanets names, and we really, really need to give these two new “Super Earths” names in particular. I mean, come on, it’s not as if we’re short of names we could use is it? OK, a lot of the really cool ones – the ones from Greek mythology, legends etc – have been taken already, but there must be thousands left to choose from. Many people are suggesting we name these strange, new worlds after famous planets from science fiction, but I don’t agree with that. The natures, appearances and characters of those planets are fixed so firmly in our minds – we know that “Arrakis” is a hot, desert planet, and that “Trantor” is a planet covered by a single, sprawling city, for example – that naming just any old planet after them would be ridiculous, and inappropriate. And besides, their creators often gave them such specific locations that their names wouldn’t be accurate in terms of stellar cartography anyway.

So, what do we call them then?

Well, what about character names from literature, especially fantasy literature? Personally I’d love to see some of these new worlds given the names of characters from Tolkien’s books, because they’re just incredibly beautiful, poetic and romantic. They just seem right for planets.

Oh, how I’d love to be able to take people outside into the night after one of my Outreach talks, point them towards the area of sky between Deneb and Vega – wherein lurks the Kepler search field – and tell them “Look, up there, between those two stars… out there, in deep space, we have found hundreds of planets orbiting faraway stars, some like Earth… and one of them is called ‘Galadriel‘…” Doesn’t that sound so much better than bloody “Kepler 62f”?

No, enough of boring numbers and letters! These new worlds need names, it’s slap across the face obvious they do. We name things we find – mountains, rivers, etc – it’s just what we do. It’s time we started naming exo-planets too.

I’m not the only one who thinks this, not by a long way. Many other popular and influential bloggers, writers and commentators are thinking, and saying, the same thing. There’s even an online company encouraging people to suggest and submit names for the planet found orbiting Alpha Centauri, for a small fee. It’s a controversial idea, and has many critics, some of them very vocal. Some object to the cost involved, insisting that no-one should have to pay to simply suggest a name, and there’s some justification for these objections, although others note that much of the money raised by this is going towards Outreach and Education projects, and not into anyone’s pockets.

The other concern people seem to have is that public contests like this will inevitably result in planets being given just stupid names. I understand this concern and actually share it; it’s one of the facts of 21st century life that if you give the online community an opportunity to name something – a polar bear cub, a bridge, whatever – some prats and plonkers will submit ridiculous and inappropriate, even offensive, names. Countless “Britney”s and “Spongebob”s are, right now, scattered across the solar system, their names having been added to lists gathered by space agencies for plaques and discs mounted on spaceprobes. And a quick search of the website just now revealed that the following names have all been suggested…

Neighbourhood of Make Believe” (guessing that’s a suburb of Bucks Fizz’s “Land of Make Believe”?); “Margaret Thatcher” (better have an iron core… sorry…); “The Doctor” (what’s so daft about that? 😉 ); “Alderaan“; “Ron Paul” (see? see?!); “Fraggle Rock” (oh, I wish!) and “Mr Squeaky Pants” (an outside bet there, I think). Predictably the names of all the characters from TV’s hugely popular “Big Bang Theory” comedy series have been submitted, and there are Star Trek and Star Wars names a plenty too.  There are some great names tho. I love the idea of worlds being called “Voltaire” or “Iliana”. Sadly there’s no ‘Stuart’ or ‘Atkinson’ on the submitted list, and amazingly no ‘Galadriel’ either. I might have to change that!

But no-one should feel upset by the names on the uwingu list, it’s just a bit of fun; no-one in their right mind is actually going to call a planet “Mr Squeaky Pants“, let’s get real.  I’m pretty sure that if a company or body is smart enough to set up a way for people to submit exoplanet names, they’ll be smart enough to remove all the stoopid suggestions before drawing up a shortlist..!

But that said, maybe something as important as naming a world shouldn’t be handled by someone charging money for it, however good their reasons.

So, who SHOULD name these strange new worlds then?

To be honest, that’s got me rather stumped, I’ll admit. As you can see from that list above, there are risks with simply asking The Public to submit names, as there are with asking commercial companies to do it. One group currently insisting that it’s their job to do it – while totally failing TO do it, of course – is the IAU, the International Astronomical Union, that mysterious group of professional astronomers that decides the official names of craters, moons, valleys and mountains Out There in the solar system.

I’m sorry, I know it’s grossly unfair of me, and I’m sure they’re in reality a well-meaning, committed group, but after the whole “Pluto naming” thing a few years back, which threeatened to descend into farce for a while and caused a lot of ill feeling, whenever I think of the IAU now an image pops into my head of those Skeksis creatures from the brilliant film “Dark Crystal”, meeting in a dusty, musty old laboratory temple somewhere underground, with hieroglyphics etched into the walls and ceiling, as they debate and discuss and vote on cosmic matters, I just can’t help it…!

Naming exo-planets won’t be easy. There was a bit of a cyber-kerfuffle recently, when a “heated debate”, shall we call it, broke out between two groups of people fascinated by and passionate about this whole planet-naming thing. It ended up, basically, with the IAU shouting down from the top of their castle tower, like the French knights in “Holy Grail”, that they and only they had the right to name celestial bodies and places and everyone else should get orff their land. The thing is, I don’t remember ever voting to give the IAU that exclusive right to name things, did you? My ballot paper might have got lost in the mail, I suppose, but I don’t think so…

Besides, there are countless objects and places “Out There” which have names NOT given by the IAU. Lunar features were named by Apollo cartographers and astronauts, before and after the landings, and there are now thousands of rocks, ledges, outcrops and craters on Mars bearing unofficial names given to them by the people involved in the various rover missions. I suppose it’s possible that one day the IAU will decide to give them different names, but I really can’t see it happening, and if they tried there would be such an outcry it would make the revolution in Les Miserables seem like a mild quarrel. They’d probably write a musical about it.

No, the only solution I can come up with – sat here at my desk on a Sunday afternoon, with a bored and impatient cat sat on my knee demanding food and stroking, in that order – is for the planets’ actual discoverers to have the responsibility for naming them, in whatever way they see fit, either by naming them themselves or by organising some kind of input from the public and the scientific community. After all, if they were smart enough to find the planets, I’m sure we can trust them to find good names for them. There’s precedent for this, of course. People who discover asteroids and comets can name them. So, while I admit this suggested solution isn’t perfect, I think it would be infiniteky preferable to having the IAU sitting in judgement over everyone and everything, like “Q” from Star Trek.

A good friend of mine – who shall remain nameless, but he’ll know it’s him I’m talking about! – wondered in an online Twitter exchange recently if those of us keen to start naming exoplanets were going to give names to ALL of them, all the trillions of them that we now think are out there. It’s a good point – where do you stop? Don’t you have to be fair, and name all of them once you’ve named a few? – but I really don’t think it’s needed. I think we just need to name a dozen or so at first, the exceptional ones, the fascinating, intriguing ones that exoplanet scientists and Outreachers can use to excite and inspire people, and just see how it goes after that. I wouldn’t want to start naming the hordes of bloated, fat, swollen “Super Jupiters” or “Hot Jupiters” we keep finding hurtling around stars just at the eges of their atmospheres. Not just because I personally have a hard time accepting they’re real planets – they’re just too weird, their behaviour too bizarre, their years too short – but because there’s now so damned many of them it’s impractical. No. Select the most genuinely Earth-like, the most intriguing, the most fascinating, and name them, appropriately and carefully, and see if the practice is accepted, then move on from there.

But the basic question is, I suppose, do these planets actually NEED names? Aren’t their scientific designations enough? After all, we can’t go there, they’re too far away. We can’t even SEE them directly, we can just tell they’re there because they cause mini eclipses as they drift in front of their parent stars. So what’s the point?

Well, the point is that giving something a name makes it real, gives it character and identity. And, more fundamentally, we as a species have a need to give things names so we can identify WITH them, *accept* them, become involved *with* them.

You don’t agree? Ok then. Let me ask you something? Do you recognise the names of the following spacecraft…

OV 099… MER-2… LM-5… ?

No? Don’t feel too bad, not many people reading this will have known them either.  But each of those spacecraft made history, and will be remembered, and beloved, and honoured, for as long as there are human beings alive to recount the history of spaceflight.

OV 099 = space shuttle orbiter “Challenger”

MER-2 – Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit”

LM-5 = Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle”

Now, if names aren’t important, why were those spacecraft given those names? Why are ANY spacecraft given names? Why weren’t we content to just keep their names as combinations of letters and numbers? Because then they would just have been machines, collections of nuts and bolts, glass and metal, rubber and plastic. Because giving them names was essential to allow the public to identify with them, to give them an identity, to link them to history.

You want more proof? Read the following list outloud…

OV 101, OV 102, OV 103, OV 099, OV 104, OV 105…

What did you feel as you read out that list? Nothing, I’ll bet. Just letters and numbers. Now read this list outloud…

Enterprise… Columbia… Discovery… Challenger… Atlantis… Endeavour…

I bet you felt something then. I bet every name sent a tsunami of memories and emotions sweeping towards, over and past you as you read out those space shuttle names. The shuttles were, essentially, technically identical, winged spacecraft with windows, wheels and wings all in the same places, but somehow each had its own personality, didn’t it? And when we say their names today, long after the last shuttle thundered into the sky, we feel something inside us stir.

Some other names to read outloud…

Voyager… Galileo… Sojourner… Spirit… Opportunity… Curiosity…

Again, memories, emotions, all associated with those names.

You see? Names are important. Names are bonds. Names are our way of investing in something. If we hadn’t been able to call them by their names, if we’d just been able to refer to them by their “factory numbers”, would we have been so mesmerised and so caught up in the incredible adventures of Spirit and Opportunity as they roved across Mars? If it hadn’t been given a real name, would Voyager 2’s solar system-crossing journey have been so celebrated? Would we still be so fascinated by it, so desperate to hear if it has finally began to travel into and through interstellar space? If names aren’t important, why was MESSENGER called MESSENGER? Why was DAWN christened DAWN? Why is a NEW HORIZONS now hurtling towards Pluto?

Interestingly, spacecraft which haven‘t been given names have slipped into history without anyone noticing or caring. The Salyuut space stations were fantastic feats of engineering for their time, real breakthroughs in technology, but they were just given numbers, so remain anonymous to the general public this day. But say the name “MIR” and you feel something, even though you are drawn into its history, you feel a part of its mission, its successes and failures.

And then there’s the International Space Station. It doesn’t have a name, it’s just known as “The International Space Station” or “ISS” for short. Originally it was going to have a name, it was going to be called “Space Station FREEDOM”, as cheesy and cliched as a 70s disco song, I know, but in hindsight it would have been better to give it a proper name, I think, because so many people I have shown it to, or talked about it to during my Outreach work, have been disappointed to learn it hasn’t got a proper name. Some have even said “That’s boring”, and while I understand the political reasons for just going with “International Space Station” I can see how giving it a proper, full name would have made it more interesting to people.

But back to naming exo-planets.

I understand why some people think that this is all a bit of a distraction, why they think there’s no need to give real names to these distant worlds, but I diagree. I think that with so many exo-planets having been discovered, with some of them even looking like genuine possibilities for deserving to be thought of as even a little “Earth-like”, now is the time to start giving some of them names. Again, not all of them, just the most special ones. We can’t go on just calling them names and numbers, it’s ridiculous. Real planets deserve proper names, I don’t know how anyone can argue against that.

The question isn’t why should we give them names anymore, it’s what should those names be? And clearly we have to find a safe, sensible and appropriate way of naming them. That will be hard work contrversial and maybe divisive too, but worth it in the end. Because right now, as there have been for generations, there are kids in school classrooms, patiently learning the names of the planets of our solar system – and they could be learning the names of planets in other solar systems too…

What an incredible thing! What an amazing time to be alive! We now know, for the first time, that ours isn’t the only solar system, we know that other stars, many of them, are circled by planets of their own. Just think about that. Ours is the first generation in the whole of human history that can go stand outside on a clear night, look up at the starry sky and know, for a fact, without doubt, that there are other solar systems out there waiting to be reached, explored and, one day, settled by our descendants. The children sitting in those classrooms, all around the world, are the ancestors of the star-crossing men and women who will look into the starry sky of “Kepler 62f” one far future night and see Sol shining there as a mere spark of light, with thousands more all around it.

They should be able to call it by its name now, to connect them with that future.

So come on, astronomical community, let’s stop faffing about, let’s get our heads together, as our hearts are telling us to,  and do the right and obvious thing for once. Let’s honour the past, celebrate the present and build a shining bridge to the future, by giving the incredible Kepler Worlds their own names.

It’s time.

 

 

 

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2 Responses

  1. I suggested to Abel Mendez a few days ago, after a tweet of his mentioning that biologists managed to name thousands of species while astronomers can’t name 800 planets, a naming scheme based on the one used in biology. A dual naming scheme, using Latin (or thereabouts) as standard, it being a dead language and all, unlike, say, English, including a star name in the name of the planet, as biologits do with the genus. The Earth would be Terra Solaris, Eris would be Eris Solaris, and so forth.

    That would (maybe) kill the main objection: that soon there will be way too many planets known for names to have any kind of real meaning; after all, that’s the objection that was used to reduce star names to those license plates we all know. And would allow the reuse of names in a meaningful way, which is also a good thing. If we find a planet just about the size of Jupiter at just about the distance to its star Jupiter is to our sun, around a star just about the mass of the Sun, it’d make sense naming it Jupiter Whatevernamethatstarisgiven…er…is.

    Of course: this would also mean giving proper names to the stars themselves. Only to the stars with known planets, which would also be useful — it’d help separating them from the crowd in catalogues, sky maps and such.

    I like the idea. And it’s not only because it’s mine. 🙂

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