What's in a Name?
A few years back, some middle school kids in Delray Beach, Florida, questioned why our solar system doesn’t have its own name. Stars have 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?
Actually, 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.
That's 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 doesn’t seem to have enough mass for an entire solar system.
The Terran System would fit the bill (the ultimate criteria being that it would sound natural to hear Star Trek’s Scotty 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 next commercial break!”) So Terran System would work. The problem is that it’s a bit bland and, besides, the naming of an entire solar system is simply much too big of a responsibility for a bunch of pre-pubescent humanoids.
Naming 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). Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, was also good at naming heavenly bodies. Pussy Galore is one example that pops into mind.
Although 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 Committee).
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 beyond,” according to the IAU web site.
At 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 IAU’s 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.
“There are some people with some strange schemes for naming comets, names with numbers and other things,” he reportedly 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.
Comets 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 name up 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 something a 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.
HALE: Wow, look at the tail on that heavenly body.
BOPP: Is it a comet?
HALE: No, it’s my neighbor. She left the drapes open again.
Of 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 offer this 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).
Although 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 cosmos.
But 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 solar system the way we name just about everything these days? Couldn’t we just sell 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 and give 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!