Category Archives: Astronomy

Are Eclipse Pundits Out of Touch?

As most people (at least the intelligent people who read blogs like this one) are aware, there will be a major total solar eclipse on August 21st, 2017.  This will be the first total solar eclipse to cross a large portion of the United States since 1979.

There are also a number of people and websites promoting this event and discussing many aspects of the upcoming eclipse.  Some of these experts are undoubtedly well known to those who follow space science.  While they go on and on about how communications have improved since 1979 and how the social media we have now was not around back then, there is one major change in our society that these eclipse pundits have ignored, willingly or otherwise.


This condition is true of quite a few people who would like to observe the total phase of the eclipse

The eclipse pundits, in their effort to show off their calculation skills as well as sell safe solar viewers, maps of the eclipse path, eclipse books, and other related chotchke, have failed to realize that the ranks of the working poor have swollen since 1979.  A very large and growing number of the American public is poorer now than they were in 1979.  What does this have to do with the eclipse, they might ask?  Quite a bit.

While most of the country lives within several hundred miles or so of the path of totality, weather prospects are not equally good along the whole length of the path.  If one wants a reasonable guarantee of the weather, they have to go out west to states like Oregon (the eastern part), Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska.  Unfortunately, if most people want to get to those destinations in a reasonable span of time, that means flying.  And, in addition to the airline industry abuses that have made it into the news recently, flying is a major hassle and is very expensive (as I wrote in my previous eclipse post, I predict airfares will experience a sharp upward spike just before the eclipse).  Add the other associated expenses, flying to see the eclipse will cost quite a bit, possibly beyond the reach of observers who aren’t well off.

Then there is the option of driving.  While it is flexible, it does have some downsides.  For one, the range is considerably limited and it takes quite a bit of time to cover significant distance.  And, given the fact that when one reaches their destination, weather prospects could force them to drive even further, possibly hundreds of miles. This makes it a bit difficult for some working poor to figure out how much time to budget for an eclipse trip.  While some have paid vacation time they can take (they still need to figure out how much time an eclipse trip would need), others do not have that luxury.  In other words, they can take the time off, but they won’t get paid for it.  In that case, they would have to balance how much pay they can afford to lose with the other costs of an eclipse trip.  Don’t count on being able to reduce the time of an eclipse trip by speed.  In addition to the likely traffic congestion on major roads leading to the track of totality, it is very likely that local and state law enforcement anywhere near the path of totality will be out in full force looking for anyone who puts the pedal to the metal as well as anyone who puts in marathon driving sessions (the police can bust people for driving tired).  And, according to posts on some eclipse forums, parking regulations will be very strictly enforced as well.  Another factor that has to be considered is the price of gas.  I would not be surprised to see a major upsurge in the price of gas around eclipse.  The people who run oil companies may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.  It is very unlikely that these companies are totally unaware of the eclipse.  Since most cars can only go about 200+ to about 300 or so miles on a tank of gas, there could be several fill ups involved in an eclipse road trip.

This discussion of time brings up another issue: accomodations.  Already there have been numerous reports of motels engaging in price gouging for accomodations anywhere near the path of totality.  Expect to hear more as time goes on.

Now, how do the eclipse pundits propose on dealing with these problems, if they even acknowledge them at all?  One solution that has been proposed smacks of the logic Marie Antoinette was said to have used when she was informed of the bread shortage in Paris (and supposedly uttered “Let them eat cake”).  Some pundits have proposed that people get RVs (Recreational Vehicles).  This ignores the obvious facts that RVs are very expensive vehicles and tend to have rather poor gas mileage.  They also do not consider that an RV can’t generally be parked just any old place when used for the purpose of lodging.  That means one also has to find an appropriate place to stop, something that might be scarce in the days before the eclipse.  Yes, I have learned that it is possible to rent RVs, but that isn’t terribly cheap and might be daunting to someone who is unfamiliar with RVs.

Another proposal is that people camp.  While this does get around the enormous cost of the RV suggestion, it has some problems of its own.  You just can’t pitch your tent anywhere.  Several years back, there was this little old thing known as OWS (Occupy Wall Street)* where a number of people pitched tents in Zucotti Park in New York City and caused much consternation with the city government.  Also, in recent years, there have been a number of occasions where homeless people have set up tents in spots that were not considered appropriate.  Local governments have undoubtedly learned from those events and naturally restrict camping to certain areas, mostly campgrounds that have been set aside for such purposes.  And with such areas, one needs reservations.  If you have to change plans due to the weather, there goes whatever you spent on the reservation (that would also apply to anyone who books a motel).  Even if you are able to camp, there is the obvious lack of amenities and that could be an issue for those who are unfamiliar with camping.  (* The Occupy Wall Street reference is for historical purposes only.  This blog does not necessarily agree or disagree with the cause)

One of the most limited proposals I have read suggested staying with friends or relatives who are near the path of totality.  While this does get around some of the problems, it absolutely requires that one have friends or relatives who live near the path of totality and would not mind visitors staying at their place for a while.

The eclipse pundit approach to solving eclipse travel problems can be described charitably as throwing spaghetti against a wall in that they will throw out any idea, regardless if it is practical, that crosses their minds and hope something sticks.  Less charitably, but probably more accurate, is that they are simply out of touch with the socio-economic reality many Americans live with.  It takes surprisingly little to join the ranks of the working poor.  An unexpected expense, a downturn at work, or a combination of these is all it takes.  And given the fact that many people in the private sector have not seen any real raise in years means that recovering from a downturn in fortunes is slow at best.  Most of these eclipse pundits are fairly secure in their financial situation and they think little of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles for an eclipse.

As illustrated by the issues brought up during the March for Science this past April, now is not a good time for science to ignore a growing segment of the American society.  Given the challenges science faces with this administration, it needs all the public support it can get.

Does anyone have real workable ideas as to how people can resolve these issues surrounding the Great American Eclipse?  Do you think my assessment of eclipse punditry is too harsh?  If so, feel free to defend the eclipse experts.  Let’s hear from you.

Has Science Been Fair to the Fair Sex?

I know Women’s History Month is almost over, but the points raised in this post are still very valid.

The film, “Hidden Figures” has been in the news quite a bit recently.  It is a dramatization of the real-life story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who did heavy-duty mathematical calculations at NASA in the 1960s. Even though computers did exist in those days, they were the size of large refrigerators and had far less computing power than even the lowly Commodore VIC-20 (a nearly 40-year old personal computer).  Thus, humans were still needed to do the mathematical work that the early manned space missions required.

However, those women had several things going against them.  One was that they were women.  Another was that they were African-American.  On top of that, NASA facilities were mostly in the South.  In the case of Kennedy Space Center (though it wasn’t called that until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy), it was due to considerations of orbital mechanics.  As for the other NASA centers, it was to placate influential politicians.  As a result, segregation was in full force at the time.  Johnson and her team worked in a separate office, had a separate lunch area, and were treated as second class people by most at NASA.  However, John Glenn judged them by their work and treated them well.  In fact, he demanded that Johnson personally handle the computations for his orbital flight.

This got me to look back at other women in the history of science.  It turns out that the snubs and treatment that Johnson and her team got were not new.

One famous example was Caroline Herschel.  Due to her growth being stunted in childhood by disease, she was quite short.  On top of that, her parents told her that she would amount to nothing.  However, she helped out her brother, William Herschel, the greatest observational astronomer of his era.  Eventually, she learned enough that she became an observer herself, discovering several deep sky objects as well as a few comets.  Despite her superb training, her contributions were largely forgotten.  Even among modern astronomers, she is little known.

Another case was Maria Mitchell.  She was born into a Quaker family and, since the Quakers believed in equal education, she received far better education than most women of that era.  Mitchell developed an interest in astronomy early in life and became one of America’s first professional astronomers and the first female one.  During the 1840s, the King of Denmark gave an annual award to people who discovered comets.  In 1841, Mitchell discovered a comet and was up for the award.  However, there were astronomers who felt that she did not deserve to get it and raised quite a furor over the matter.  Finally, the Danish authorities intervened and Mitchell got her medal.

Jumping forward to the early 20th century, Harvard Observatory hired a number of women to do mathematical work and measurements of images on glass photographic plates.  Much like Katherine Johnson and her team, these women were referred to as “computers”.  Unlike Johnson, these computers earned sweatshop wages.  But, it was far safer than most of the work women got in that era, working in dangerous mills as well as garment manufacturing (anybody recall the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?). One of these women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was assigned the task of studying stars on glass photographic plates.  Her job was to locate stars in the Magellanic Clouds that varied in brightness.  Doing so, she discovered that one class of stars (what we call Cepheid variables) had a brightness that was proportional to their period (cycle of variability).  This became known as the period-luminosity relationship and laid the foundation for finding distances to nearby galaxies.  Since she was just a lowly computer, her bosses took credit for the discovery.  But the truth eventually won out and the story is well known in astronomical circles today.

I could go on and on with other examples, such as the career of Lise Meitner, who had to contend with sexism as well as the rise of Nazi Germany, the story of how Watson and Crick might have “borrowed” information from a female colleague to aid their discovery of the structure of DNA, but here is a case of how a woman scientist made a discovery, only to have it stolen from her.

In 1968, Jocelyn Bell was working at Cambridge when she made an odd discovery.  When the radio telescope was pointed at a spot in the constellation of Vulpecula, a rapid pulsing signal was detected.  The pulses were very precise, enough that some people thought it was an alien radio beacon.  This idea soon fell by the wayside and it was learned that the object responsible was a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star that emitted radio energy like the beam of a lighthouse.  Once the significance of this became apparent, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle, Bell’s bosses, took credit for the discovery.  Though she did win a Michelson Award (along with Anthony Hewish) in 1973, she was totally ignored when the Nobel prize in physics was handed out in 1974 with Hewish and Ryle getting the prize.  Despite protests from other prominent physicists, Bell was denied Nobel recognition.  While the history books got things right in the end, it was too late for Bell to get the prize.  But she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II some years later.

Sometimes, the side of good wins.  In 1979, Voyager 1 passed through by Jupiter and made many observations.  About three days after closest approach, navigation engineers were poring over the images sent back.  This was to refine the position of the spacecraft as well as the orbits of the Galilean moons.  One of those people, a woman by the name of Linda Morabito, noticed something odd in an image of Io.  It appeared that there was a limb of another moon peeking out from behind Io. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Morabito enhanced the image and, probably echoing the thought of Han Solo when he first saw the Death Star, found that was no moon.

converted PNM file

The first image of Io’s volcanism

It was actually the plume from a volcanic eruption on Io, the first display of active volcanism outside Earth.  Morabito was determined to get credit for this find and pushed her case.  Finally, with the mainstream media on her side, she was credited with the find, securing her place in scientific history.

These days, Morabito is involved in advocating for science.  In additon to her personal website, she also maintains a Facebook group, Linda Morabito’s Space Place where she offers commentary on various scientific issues.

So, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, remember the contributions women have made in science and let’s hope for the day when science gives credit where it is due without regard to whether it was a man or a woman who made the discovery.

Lunar Mythbusting

Tonight is October 8th, which has been declared International Observe the Moon Night (IOMN).  Personally, I would choose a date as close to September 13th as possible to take a jab at the late Gerry Anderson and his bit of lunar lunacy known as “Space: 1999”.  Yes, I know I missed that date as well on this blog, but I had other issues to deal with.  With IOMN clouded and/or rained out tonight for a large portion of the United States, I thought I would provide some educational lunar entertainment to make up for it.  So, I dusted off an article I wrote for the Asterism (AAI’s long-defunct newsletter) and I’m using it for material here.

Some years ago, I went to a convention and saw Dee Wallace, best known for playing the mom in E.T. The Extraterrestrial. She was quite nice and she was also there to push DVDs of “The Howling”, a werewolf movie she was in. I took the opportunity to explain to her that I didn’t find werewolf stuff too interesting due to my knowledge of the Moon and the fact that it exerts no strange influences. Dee agreed, but she said that the myths about the Moon were quite pervasive in popular culture, even after the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon without anything strange happening to them. So, let’s take a detailed look at why the Moon, while interesting, is not mystical.

Time and Tides: People who believe in the mystical powers of the Moon often point out that it could exert its spooky actions through tidal forces. On the surface, this might seem reasonable. After all, anyone who has spent more than a few hours by the ocean or a bay has noticed that the water rises and falls due to tides. Some have argued that, since the ocean is water and people are mostly water in terms of composition, lunar tides should affect people and their behavior. They point to claims of increased weird behavior at times of full Moon and then the old stories always say that werewolves change from people to beasts at full Moon.

However, the “Full Moon effect” has been shown to be false by numerous statistical studies. Also, if one knows how tides work, it is easy to see that they cannot influence living beings.  Tides result when the side of an object nearest a gravity source experiences a greater pull than the opposite side does.  In the case of the oceans, the sea facing the Moon is about 8,000 miles closer to the Moon than the ocean on the opposite side of the Earth. Since the Moon is about a quarter of a million miles away, the diameter of the Earth is a measurable fraction of that distance and the ocean feels the effect of the difference.

Now, consider the case of a human being. To make things as fair as possible to the werewolf buffs, our example will be a player from the NBA who is seven feet tall. The difference in the pull of lunar gravity between the top of his head and the soles of his feet is so close to zero that it can be considered zero for any practical purpose. Even the varying distance of the Moon from Earth (the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical), while important for ocean tides, does not alter this conclusion.

It could be argued that tides do influence some living creatures since a number of sea animals lay eggs at times of very high tides. This is the result of their biological clocks, not lunar influence. And they are not infallible tide predictors as the large number of horseshoe crabs that die stranded on beaches each spring can attest to.

Blinded By The Light: Anyone who has been at an observatory on a public night during a full Moon knows it can appear very bright, especially through the telescopes. This brightness is deceptive. Actually the Moon reflects light about as well as the pavement of a road (an albedo of about 7%). It appears bright because the Moon is surrounded by nonreflecting space, so even a dark object like would appear bright. But that is not the whole story.

It is known that the full Moon appears about ten times as bright as it does at first or third quarter. Before people knew much about the Moon, this must have appeared strange. But there are two reasons for this effect. First of all, during full Moon, the Sun is overhead as seen from the lunar surface. There are no shadows. At other times, there are always some shadows formed by mountains and crater rims. But the other reason was only discovered after the Apollo missions returned lunar samples to Earth.

Most of the Moon is covered in a layer of dust, which is essentially lunar rock that has been pulverized by eons of micrometeorite impacts. When samples of this dust were studied on Earth, it was discovered that there were numerous tiny bits of glass in it. The glass formed as the impacts of micrometeorites melted little bits of surface material. The bits of glass give lunar dust a weak retroreflective property like those reflectors embedded in many roads. Due to this effect, the lunar dust actually reflects a bit more light towards Earth at full Moon.

No Cheese, Green or Otherwise: The final proof against strange lunar influence is the composition of the Moon itself. It is now widely believed that Moon formed as the result of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized planetesimal in the early days of the solar system, which sent debris from the Earth’s mantle into space.

Because of this origin, only about a dozen minerals make up the Moon. Besides basalt and anorthosite (basic igneous rocks), most of these are oxides of iron, titanium, chromium, aluminum as well as some silicates, along with some minerals rich in potassium and rare earth elements. Recently, something new has been added to this list. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector probe found evidence of hydrogen-rich material in some permanently shaded craters near the lunar South Pole. While it could be buried water ice from ancient comet impacts, hydrated minerals and cometary hydrocarbons have not been ruled out. While this mix of minerals is interesting to those who want to build lunar bases, it is about as non-mystical as one can get.

As one can see, the Moon is an interesting place with great potential importance for humanity’s future. Now, isn’t this far more interesting and exciting than mysticism and werewolf stories?

T-Minus 1 Year

Today is August 20th, 2016 and that means it is one year until the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States since 1979.  This is the first post on that eclipse and there will be others as we get nearer to the date.

If you want information about the eclipse, such as its path, weather prospects, and such, the official Great American Eclipse website is the best place to look as it is frequently updated, has a wealth of maps, and very detailed information, including input from Fred Espenak, considered by many to be America’s foremost expert on solar eclipses.

While the information on the site is accurate, there are quite a few things that would-be eclipse observers should be aware of.  Most (if not all) the people intelligent enough to read blogs like this one already know that looking directly at any portion of the uneclipsed Sun without proper filters will result in severe retinal damage.  But there are other less obvious issues.

Most people live a considerable distance from the eclipse track (except for the 12 million or so who live on it) and that means that they must travel.  Unfortunately, long distance travel is quite a challenge these days, especially to those who have limited time and limited means.  The pundits say that one should choose their observing spot as soon as possible.  If we lived in a world with perfectly predictable weather, that would be easy.  Unfortunately we do not.  If one is traveling by air, and they see on the weather forecast that the weather their chosen site is going to be bad, that can mean a scramble to select another site, cancel the flight plan, and book another flight.  And as most people realize, changing air travel plans at the last minute can be rather costly.  On top of that, I predict that the airlines will raise airfares substantially next August just because of the eclipse.

Some people will travel by car to an eclipse site.  Driving to an eclipse site does take time and, if one can’t get much vacation time from work, that greatly limits possible eclipse sites.  Car travel does offer flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but there is a catch.  Travel range is limited.  According to Sky & Telescope magazine, given one day’s notice of a change in eclipse plans, it is thought that an eclipse observer can cover something on the order of 500 miles or so, depending on how long they plan to drive continuously.  Of course some will try to add to the range by increasing their travel speed.  But the interstate highway system is not like the German autobahn.  There are speed limits.  And I predict that police and state troopers all along the eclipse track will be instructed to be out in force with their radar guns to nab speeders.  According to the Great American Eclipse website, transportation departments in states along the eclipse track are well aware of the upcoming eclipse and I suspect the information will be passed along.

Does this mean that you should give up on observing the total eclipse next year?  Not at all.  It does mean that you should be aware of potential pitfalls when you make your plans.  Future posts will bring up other aspects of this truly astronomical event.  Stay tuned.

Is Resistance (to Light Pollution) Futile?

For the benefit of the few readers of this blog who may not be familiar with the term, light pollution is excessive and misdirected outdoor lighting that makes it difficult to impossible to observe objects in the night sky.

With the definition out of the way, some organizations such as the International Dark Sky Association and Globe at Night claim that their efforts to raise awareness of this issue have met with a measure of success.  While this may indeed be the case, I think the progress has been minimal.

One example concerns Earth Hour, which was from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM on March 28th.  What is supposed to happen during Earth Hour is that people are supposed to shut off their outdoor lighting for the duration.   Instead, very little of the sort actually happened as is usual for every year this event has been held.  The lamestream media did give it some mention and pointed out that some towns and cities celebrated it.  These “celebrations” were quite noncommittal and merely involved turning off the outdoor lights around a prominent local landmark or two.  Besides this governmental involvement, nobody appears to have done anything.  Yet, when there is an occasion that asks for people to turn lights on, such as the National Night Out held every August, the level of participation is very high.  Apparently, people have a strong aversion to turning off their outdoor lights even though it costs them money for the electricity and the security benefits are limited (according to sources such as the FBI).

What I would like to see is a city or town decide to celebrate Earth Hour with a partial reenactment of a World War II-era blackout.  Younger readers of this blog might not be aware that, during the war, people were in fear of being bombed at night by the enemy.  For the British, this fear was very real as the Luftwaffe frequently bombed targets in Britain under the cover of night during the early part of the war.  In the United States, the fear was more hypothetical as the capabilities of the enemy were not well known.  While the country was definitely out of range of German aircraft, the range of the Japanese planes was largely unknown in the early days of the war and there was speculation that they could reach targets on the west coast.  To frustrate night bombers, towns and cities adopted a blackout strategy where, when a signal was given, every source of possible outdoor illumination was either shut off or completely shielded.  While this was not 100% effective in Britain (the Germans had an early sort of radio navigation), it did make it harder for British cities to be struck, and in the United States, blackouts did raise war awareness among the public.  Getting back to the main point of the paragraph, towns and cities should celebrate Earth Hour by turning off as much outdoor illumination as possible (except traffic signals) and possibly even compete with one another for achieving the greatest light reduction.

Another example was a recent news article that carried a night-time satellite image of the Korean peninsula.  South of the 38th parallel, there were brightly lit cities and towns.  North of it, almost complete darkness.  The author of the article was implying that light pollution is a sign of economic vigor and is a good thing, despite growing evidence of health and ecological problems it causes.  By not having light pollution, North Korea was dysfunctional.  Actually, one doesn’t need a satellite image to figure that out.  Any society where the police manual has a chapter devoted to cannibalism has very serious problems and lighting is not going to fix that.

However, for any serious progress to be made against light pollution, there would need to be a change in mentality that I do not see happening.  An example of the kind of thinking that helps perpetuate light pollution was aired on my local AM radio station.  Every Wednesday morning, they have a short (about forty minutes) program hosted by Milton Paris, titled “Getting Ahead in Business”.  Each program, Paris would bring on a business owner that he met at one of his public functions and that owner would describe his business while Paris would ask questions and make favorable comments.  Recently, he had the owner of a sign company and the two of them waxed rhapsodic over illuminated business signs.  The part that caught my attention was when they said that it made good sense to leave said signs on all night as advertising.  Aside from the obvious contribution to the light pollution problem, such an approach would be wasting money for those businesses since they would be spending money on electricity to power the signs when there is nobody around to see them.  While I am not advocating doing away with illuminated business signs, nor am I against their use for advertising, I believe that an intelligent business would have them shut off after a certain time when potential viewers of the signs are not around.  After all, a sign shining at three in the morning is not likely to be seen by anyone except the occasional over-the-road truck driver or police officer on patrol.  In short, why pay to put on advertising when there is no audience?

The point of all this is that there cannot be much real progress against light pollution until the mindset of leaving lights on all night even when there is no need for them is changed.  Does anyone see any way to change that?

Are Some Astronomers (Culturally) Illiterate?

Sometimes, the public perceives astronomers, especially professionals, as being somewhat out of touch.  Every now and then, an incident comes along which explains how that impression may have come about.

As  chronicled in an article from Space Daily, two astronomers from Northwestern University, Sourav Chatterjee and Jonathan C. Tan, published a paper in which they discussed Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized extrasolar planets that orbit exceptionally close to their suns.  These astronomers explained that those planets likely formed at or very near to their present locations because they accreted (came together) from material that spiraled in towards the star from the protoplanetary disk.  So far, nothing very controversial and it probably is how it actually happened.

Where the cultural illiteracy enters the picture is the terminology the two scientist use to describe the planets.  They refer to them as “Vulcan planets”.  Their rationale is that, back in the 19th century, astronomers noticed that the orbit of Mercury was a bit off from what Newtonian mechanics said it would be.  Inspired by the discovery of Neptune from variations in the orbit of Uranus, Urbain Leverrier proposed the existence of a planet that orbited closer to the Sun than Mercury and named it “Vulcan”.  Despite a reported sighting by a French amateur astronomer, nobody found anything that fit the description, and when Einstein explained the variation in Mercury’s orbit as being caused by relativistic effects due to the warping of space-time by the Sun, the whole business was forgotten.  Since this non-existent planet orbited very close to the Sun, the two astronomers thought the term “Vulcan” should be used to name the planets described in their paper.

While the whole history of the close-to-the-Sun planet that wasn’t was well-known to astronomers, it flies over the head of the general tax-paying public (the people who fund a lot of astronomical research these days) like the Blue Angels at an air show.  If you asked people on the street what pops into their mind when you mention the term “Vulcan”, probably nine out of ten would answer either an arid Earth-like planet envisioned by Gene Roddenberry or a pointy-eared, green-blooded, inhabitant of said planet, the most famous of which was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy (and portrayed in the J. J. Abrams version of the franchise by Zachary Quinto).  Either those two astronomers were extremely ignorant of popular culture (very unlikely) or they thought they were better than other people.

Should astronomers show more awareness of popular culture when they come up with names and terminology?  Does their ignorance and/or contempt for popular culture show a contempt for the public that provides much of their funding?

IAU: Incompetent Astronomical Union?

Those who have read Laurel Kornfeld’s Pluto Blog know that she believes the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is essentially a totally Euro-centric elitist old boys network.  And Alan Stern, arguably the hardest working man in space science as he is working on two space missions (Rosetta and New Horizons) in addition to running the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), wants to start up a rival organization, though I feel it will wind up being an astronomical version of a rump republic (a governing body with very little to no legitimate authority).  I believe the IAU is a flawed organization, but I thought it could be fixed through reforms.  Now I am not so sure.

Recently, the IAU announced a contest to name extrasolar planets. Sounds like an interesting idea, doesn’t it?  However, the way the IAU is carrying this plan out indicates that the problems with the organization are very deeply rooted in its culture.  For starters, only astronomical organizations that are registered with the World Directory of Astronomy (run by the IAU) will be allowed to participate.  This does not mean that members of these groups can submit entries.  Rather, the group as a whole submits their entry.  On top of that, it appears that IAU will be using the convention used to name minor planets in our solar systems, which I feel is totally inappropriate for the job.  This process only nominates the names.  Then comes the voting.  The details can be read in the official contest rules.

The whole thing reeks of dishonesty.  The IAU will control the nomination process and it is very likely that the vote totals when the names are voted on will never be made public.  Given the IAU’s penchant for voting irregularities, it is entirely possible that the winner will be decided regardless of the actual votes.  Perhaps the IAU needs election monitors to audit the voting.

Then there is the idea that the minor planet naming system can be extended to extrasolar planets.  A better naming system already exists.  When the Vikings landed in Iceland, they used a system called “landnam” or land-naming to assign names to geographical features.  The names derived from Viking mythology.  I am not proposing that Viking mythology be used to name extrasolar planets.  What I am suggesting is that extrasolar planet names be derived from what could be considered the mythology of space – science fiction.  For example, if an Earth-like extrasolar planet is discovered in or near the habitable zone of the 40 Eridani system, it should be named Vulcan.  The “Star Trek” franchise alone contains a good number of names suitable for extrasolar planets, such as Bajor, Cardassia, Bolia, Betazed, Romulus, and quite a few others.  Then, there is the “Star Wars” franchise. In fact it even has a name suitable for a gas giant – Bespin.  Add the other noteworthy science fiction franchises (“Babylon 5”, “Galactica”, “Doctor Who”, etc.), and there should be enough names to serve the purpose for quite some time, especially if the names are limited to Earth-sized or nearly Earth-sized planets (the taxpaying public who fund exoplanet surveys are not terribly interested in extrasolar gas giants, hot Jupiters, or hot Neptunes).  However, in the increasingly unlikely event that a gas giant is detected in the Alpha Centauri system, it should be named “Charybdis”.  If it was good enough for James Cameron, it should be good enough for astronomers to use.

This proposal would engage the attention of the public, who as I explained earlier, fund much of astronomical research through their taxes.  And, as the old Scottish proverb goes, “He who pays the piper gets to call the tune”.

Now, some might argue that such an approach could run afoul of copyrights, trademarks, etc.  First of all, any holder of such rights would be very stupid to complain about this.  What they would be getting out of the use of those names for this purpose is free advertising.  Best of all, this free advertising would last essentially forever.  Every time someone would write a scientific paper about a given named exoplanet, they would use the name.  This is the kind of publicity that cannot be purchased and most businesses would love to have their products, or parts of their products, immortalized on the biggest billboards imaginable.

Of course, another solution would be to have an international body, such as the United Nations, grant whatever organization that would be in charge of astronomical matters (a reformed IAU or whatever replaces the IAU) exemption from those laws.  I believe that the Internet Archive has an exemption of that sort already.

Getting back to the point that got this started, do you feel that the IAU can be fixed via reforms or should the whole edifice be torn down and replaced with a newer, more responsive organization?