Sorry, But You Can’t Name That Exoplanet

On the futility of assigning names to grains of sand.

The International Astronomical Union issued a stern statement yesterday that organizations on the web claiming to crowdsource names for the rapidly growing number of newly-discovered exoplanets have no legitimacy. Presumably, the IAU is leveling this oblique criticism at Uwingu, a crowdfunding website offering a uniquely 21st-century contest: “Nominate and vote for your favorite names for the Earth-like planet around alpha Centauri!”

Uwingu is administered by “real” science folks: astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and aerospace engineers. And, despite its flashy concept, Uwingu is mostly just a PR punch for science. It makes no concrete promises, and the site’s profits–it costs $4.99 to nominate a groovier name for Alpha Centauri Bb, the closest habitable world to ours, and $0.99 to vote on nominations–go towards subsidizing science research. So, no harm, no foul, right?

Not quite. The International Astronomical Union, who you might remember from their other buzzkill turn in the public eye, the Pluto-demotion affair, are not amused. “The vast number of objects in our Universe,” they wrote, “means that a clear and systematic system for naming these objects is vital.” Any naming system needs to be agreed upon by the global scientific community so as to avoid a Tower-of-Babel scenario. There must be consensus; science is global now, collaborative, and (in principle) noncommercial. If Uwingu’s cute crowdsourcing is let slide, then who’s to say the next exoplanet won’t just be named by the highest bidder? And how can scientists possibly get any work done if they have to sift through dozens of conflicting monikers–which, if Uwingu gets its way, could be names like “No More Taxes” and “Fraggle Rock?”

Uwingu’s response to the criticism, on Twitter: “Cloistered committees shouldn’t control the naming of objects in the universe. It’s everybody’s universe.” And they have a point. Although the International Astronomical Union is the only scientific authority allowed to name astronomical bodies (and it’s not so much a cloistered committee as a working group of 10,871 individual members, by the way), when we’re talking about scales as vast as the universe, can anyone really claim such an authority?

Over the years, that ambiguity has fostered its own economy. The International Star Registry, whose calligraphic vellum certificates certainly look official, sell stars at around $50 a pop. This business is effectively inexhaustible: the ISR has sold over a million stars, but our galaxy alone is packed with up to a trillion. Then there’s Dennis Hope, a Nevada man who has made a living “selling” plots of land on the moon; The Man Who Sells the Moon, a lovely documentary about Hope excerpted on the New York Times, made rounds on the web last month.

Such galactic real estate is technically a novelty; these enterprises are in the business of selling fictions, the idea of a personalized star or dusty corner of moon rock to someday, perhaps, call home. In reality, most stars don’t even have names per se–with a few colloquial exceptions, they have catalogue numbers. Of course, in the pre-modern era, the night sky was a swirl of neologisms and conflicting titles; the star we call Polaris, throughout history, has responded to Alruccabah, Angel Stern, Cynosura, the Lodestar, Mismar, Navigatoria, Phoenice, the Pole Star, the Star of Arcady, Tramontana, and Yilduz.

Apollo 1 astronauts, trained in rudimentary celestial navigation, named useful stars after one another. And while minor planets, comets, planetary features, and asteroids have their own naming conventions, exoplanets are new territory, not something the IAU could have easily prophesied when it was founded in 1919. The IAU begs of us: their job is already insane. The very idea that the Universe can be portioned off and named according to sensible and consistent standards is so completely tenuous at its core that the slightest disruption could upset everything.

In a sense, it’s like money, or even language: just numbers and words on paper, ideas, agreed-upon values. Question those values by inventing your own currency or disregarding common usage, and it’s not just your counterfeit bills that are called into question–it’s the whole system. The IAU’s authority may be grandfathered in from a more innocent era, but it’s their burden. Why should we envy the categorically impossible, near-Borgesian task that has befallen them? After all, space is vast, with a tendency to become vaster the harder we look.

Astronomical objects our ancestors perceived (and named) as single stars have since turned out to be entire galaxies, containing multitudes. It’s one thing to name the handful of rocks in our neighborhood after Greek and Roman gods, but the average rate of exoplanet discovery has shot up in recent years, with new detections announced practically weekly, thanks to NASA’s Kepler space telescope. There are 998 million entries in the Guide Star Catalog–that’s almost 100 million distinct astronomical objects. Could it be that the International Astronomical Union is outpaced? Maybe, at at certain point, for a cluster of lifeforms on a rock, delegated to a cold corner of the universe, maybe, the enterprise of total galactic taxonomy becomes more than a little Sisyphean?

By that logic, however, so is the entire scientific enterprise. Which brings me to the essence of this problem: while authority in this domain may be arbitrary, self-selected, or historical, we must remember what a name is. While scientific taxonomy is often perceived as being a planetary name’s ultimate function, there are many different kinds of names. In the realm of science, there’s always been a distinction between binomial Latin (or “scientific”) names and vernacular (“common”) names. More broadly, there are nicknames, honorifics, generic names, noms de plume–and secret names, too. Objects and people can hold many assignations without any impairment to their essence; names are complex and self-reflexive; as Gertrude Stein wrote, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

The IAU are the record-keepers of an internationally agreed-upon convention, a master list. They are archivists of the universe’s most powerful names, the names which scientists whisper to one another like a code. But their authority has to end there. The universe is ours to nickname.