Sunday, July 29, 2007

Naming Stars

I spent the weekend with my family visiting Frankenmuth, Michigan. It is a town right in the middle of Michigan that is themed to look like 19th century Bavaria. That may sound odd but the town is a lot of fun. While visiting a toy store there, my oldest son convinced me to buy him a stuffed frog.

The frog comes with instructions for creating a virtual frog online that can interact with other people. One of the perks is that you can have a star named after your stuffed virtual frog. That made me read the packaging again. You can have a star named after a stuffed animal?

Heck, if a stuffed frog can have a star named after it, how about me? The Miland Brown Star sounds cool. I can spend some time doing research on a star likely to have a planetary system and maybe thousands of years from now human colonists will look up into the light of Miland Brown. If it is cheap, why not take a crack at being a part of history?

Alas, it is not this simple. There are a lot of companies selling star names online. And not a one of them is official as the International Astronomical Union (IAU) does not recognize the names. And as scientists use the IAU classification system, that means any star name purchased is just a novelty and not really the name of the star.

The article Name a Star? The Truth about Buying Your Place in Heaven by Robert Roy Britt has more information. Britt wrote, "Only the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has the right to officially name celestial objects. It does so for scientific purposes only and does not recognize any commercial naming systems. The IAU, viewed by astronomers as the reputable governing body, is well aware of the sea of commercial star vendors. It has this to say: The IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of 'selling' fictitious star names."

Mind you, these online companies selling star names are doing nothing legally wrong. Anyone can create their own star naming system and use it to sell naming rights to the public. As long as they admit (no matter how deeply buried in their sites) that the names are not recognized by science (and hence not the official names of the stars), no law has been broken. And the business idea is sound. If a company will spend millions to have a football stadium named, why wouldn't I spend fifty bucks to have a star named after me? There are a lot more stars than people and everyone who has ever lived could have a star named after them with plenty of left over stars remaining.

Which make me think, why doesn't the IAU sell star names? Think of the money it could raise for astronomy education and research. If people will buy dubious unofficial names, I think they would buy official names even more readily.

Britt has an answer for this. He wrote, "The IAU does recognize a handful of ancient star names, given to some of the brightest stars in our sky. But with millions and millions of stars out there, it wisely decided long ago that a numbering system is more useful for scientists. As the IAU puts it,'Finding Maria Gonzalez in Argentina or John Smith in Britain just from their names is pretty hopeless, but if you know their precise address (perhaps from their social security number) you can contact them without knowing their name at all.' As a web site called Name a Star admits, 'Scientists will never want to deal with finding Aunt Martha's Star.' This company deserves a gold star for forthrightness."

I would argue that the IAU should keep the current numbering system for stars which scientists use for record keeping . However, every star could have a database entry for official name where bought or bestowed names could be added. The astronomer could still use the number system but there could still be an official name that people could look up. And as an added perk, a "real" name would be of more interest to the media when a new finding was announced. What is more interesting to you, HIP 110991 or Miland Brown Star?

It seems to me everyone would win with this system. Astronomers could still use a logical numbering system. People could have stars named after them. The IAU could raise some well needed cash. And just perhaps, these novelty online star naming companies would go out of business.

If this system is adopted, and this post had anything to do with it, please name a good star close to Earth as the Miland Brown Star. I would appreciate it.

1 comment:

BB-Idaho said...

It seems appropriate that K-PAX be renamed Kevin Spacey.