November 26, 2014

When You Wish Upon a Star: the Truth About Star Naming.

    We have a pet peeve here at Astroguyz. Every great once in a while, most astronomers get asked by a well meaning member of the public to locate a particular star. This is not a problem, even without the benefit of a “Goto” mount; right ascension, declination, and maybe a crude star map is all that is required.

 

   However, after locating and showing off the quarry, the individual presents an official looking “deed” that they have purchased claiming they have “named” the star! What’s a well meaning science educator to do? Sometimes, the star has been named after a deceased loved one. I, for one, would simply show them the star without much commentary; as a matter of fact, we were once instructed to do just that at a public observatory that I once worked at. But it burns me; such groups as the Star Registry (I won’t enshrine them with a link) promise to name (the term they use is “adopt”) a star for you in exchange for a fee. However, we’ll let you in on a secret; astronomers don’t sit around, referring to stellar catalogs drawn up by such agencies (“Hey, the spectra of Buffy XIV looks abnormal tonight!”) The International Astronomical Union holds the sole responsibility for naming astronomical objects, and only proper names for solar system objects and constellations are recognized. I know, you’re saying, “what about Sirius or Polaris?” truth be told, even those are only popular names and not official! Official names are designated via the unglamorous Hipparcos, Tycho, and SAO catalogs. Only the brightest stars may be dignified with names from combining the Greek alphabet with the genitive of the constellation. Hence Regulus becomes Alpha Leonis, Denebola becomes Beta Leonis and so on.

 So, what’s the harm? The harm is done when profit is made off of unsuspecting customers. I can go out tonight and name a star after my dog; it’s still the same star. Maybe I can convince my family (and my dog) to start calling it the same; the trick comes with making it stick in use with the general public. My point is that the business of naming stars is big money, but has no more legitimacy than simply naming them yourself. It’s like the evolution of language, something most English teachers don’t like to admit; say something wrong enough, long enough, and it is bound to stick. Like with anything, it’s an innocuous game until money gets involved. Then it deserves skeptical scrutiny. If anything, the Star Registry and others like it can be credited in creating profit out of nothing. That’s a magic act in of itself. Now you can name stars, by land on the Moon, or even Mars. I’ve got a bridge on Pluto I’d like to sell you. Just think, as an evil anti-Astroguyz, we could make out like, well, bandits. Fortunately, in this reality, we are dedicated to championing the virtues of “Truth, Skepticism, and the American way…” even if we’ve gotta stay hungry to do it. To its meager credit, the Star Registry does state, in size 8 nearly transparent font, that they are not affiliated with the scientific community at large. It also states in its FAQ section that it’s merely letting you “adopt” a star, but I’ve yet to meet a customer that has expressed that same sentiment. Founded in 1979, the Star Registry now charges over 50$ for its basic package. I built my last scope for less than that!

Got money to burn in an astronomical way? Here are some alternate suggestions;

1.       Buy a child a telescope, (or preferably a star atlas!): A love of astronomy early might just last a lifetime.

2.       Join a local astronomy club: Membership cost is generally a pittance; you could probably get the whole family a lifetime membership for the aforementioned 50$. No equipment or technical knowledge is required; only desire is a must. A club can also be a great place to check out equipment before buying; most astro-geeks (I’m one, so I can say that!) love to talk shop. For an exhaustive directory link, click here.

3.       Visit a local animal shelter: There are plenty of carbon-based life-forms right here on Earth that are in need of names and families to name them. I’ve also shown the universe to the homeless, but that’s another blog post (re: working title; “Stargazing from the Hood…”)

So that concludes our two cents on things; we promise that its back to the science (or more science fiction!) next week. One of the great things about the Internet is that you can speak your piece; and then I can say your piece sucks! As always, we welcome comments, good, bad, threatening, and otherwise. Anything except alien spam!   These here blogs also serve an important function of showing what average (i.e. non-affiliated) folks are saying about a product, info that can be hard to come by when everything is a precision purchase. Save your bucks when it comes to star naming; instead, name that new Terrier “Sirius,” or “Betelgeuse!”

 

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Luke C., David Dickinson. David Dickinson said: http://bit.ly/9bYSfp Astoguyz retro: When You Wish Upon a Star: The Truth About Star Naming. Save your hard earned cash! [...]

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