Tag Archives: Vikings

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?


Columbus: Too Flawed to Be a Hero?

Homeland Security (Native American style)

An increasingly popular sentiment about Columbus and his voyages.

Sorry about the lack of postings, but I have been under the weather lately.  Nothing serious, just terribly annoying.

Now on to the discussion.  Today is the day the U.S. government sets aside to honor the first transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus back in 1492.  The discoveries he made are well known and their story is not going to be repeated here.  But what will be discussed is whether or not Columbus is worthy of being considered a hero.

Given the primitive state of ships and navigation in that era, Columbus proved himself to be an exceptional seaman and navigator.  Unfortunately, he falls far short of being heroic when it comes to character.

For starters, he was a very dishonest man.  True, he lied to the natives, but all the explorers of the New World did.  But Columbus also lied to his sponsors (the Spanish royalty).  The professors at the University of Salamanca knew that Columbus’ figures concerning the circumference of the Earth, the extent of Asia, and even that of Europe were seriously fudged and tried to warn Ferdinand and Isabella about that.

He also lied to his crew, especially on the first voyage when he kept two separate logs, an accurate one for his private use and another falsified one for showing to the crew.

And it seems that Columbus had an idea that where he was going was not the wealthy areas of China and Japan.  One third of the cargo capacity on his vessels was taken up by cheap junk such as glass beads, hawkbells, and other trinkets.  If one was going to one of the richest nations on Earth, you wouldn’t bring junk to trade.  But, if you knew there were going to be primitive people who would be in awe of such junk, a move like that would make sense.

Now, where would Columbus get that kind of idea?   Here is a plausible theory.  It is known that when Columbus was a sailor on a merchant vessel, one of the ports that he visited was in Iceland.  And Iceland was settled by the Vikings, the folks who discovered Vinland and set up a settlement at L’ans Aux Meadows  in Canada (being the first confirmed Europeans to visit the New World – there have been claims that some Irish hermits might have come earlier, but their style of discovery that Dr. Beachcombing describes as “kamikaze exploration” pretty much rules out returning to report said discoveries and bragging about them) in about 1000 AD, which lasted a few years until the Vikings were driven out by a native insurgency campaign.   One can imagine Columbus sitting in a local Icelandic bar with his shipmates when a local guy tells them a weird story that there were these lands across the Atlantic inhabited by primitive people (a memory of Vinland).  This could have fired Columbus’ imagination and spurred his desire to check it out for himself.  Figuring that there were lands across the ocean in warmer climates than old Vinland, he probably started formulating a plan.

So, even he was not the first to sail to the New World.  Yet, even with all his character flaws and ending up in disgrace, losing every accolade his discoveries brought him, he is still regarded by some as a hero.  Why is this?

The answer is obvious.  Italian-Americans, like every other ethnic group, felt a need of a hero of their own.  Nothing wrong with that.  But I feel that there are better choices, people who are of better character than Columbus.  One example might be Gugielmo Marconi, the man who invented radio communication.  While Marconi’s wireless could only handle Morse code, it laid the groundwork for radio and television.  Then there is Enrico Fermi, a brilliant physicist who used his skills to aid the U.S. war effort in World War II.

But, if the Italian-American community wants a hero whose courage and character is beyond reproach, might I suggest none other than John Basilone?  Basilone served in the Marines in World War II and, with a small handful of men, helped hold off a massive Japanese assault on an airfield at Guadalcanal in 1942.  His feats of heroism and great strength (at one point he had to run while carrying a 90-lb+ machine gun and a large load of ammunition in order to bring it back to the American lines) earned him a Medal of Honor.  The government then had Basilone sent back to the United States and put him on a war bond drive.  He was also offered a promotion to be an officer and spend the rest of the war in the U.S.  But, he felt a sense of duty to his comrades in the Pacific and went back.  Basilone then distinguished himself heroically at Iwo Jima in 1945, but was killed.  Here is a more detailed account of Basilone and his heroism.

Isn’t John Basilone a more worthy hero for Italian-Americans than a superb sailor and navigator who was dishonest and is increasingly viewed as a villain?