These are some of the 31 newly-named exoplanets and 14 newly-named stars, the result of an international naming competition organized by the International Astronomical Union and made public and formal last month.
More than half a million people voted in the naming sweepstakes, and that no doubt brought a lot of attention and interest into the world of exoplanet research. Organizers of the effort have explained their effort this way: “Given the publicity and emotional investment associated with these discoveries, worldwide recognition is important and the IAU offers its unique experience for the benefit of a successful public naming process.”
But a so far anecdotal survey of exoplanet scientists suggests that it will be a long time — if ever — before they use those IAU selected names.
For instance, Didier Queloz, who was part of the Swiss team that actually made that first discovery of 51 Peg b, is not at all impressed.
“‘Naming a planet” is mostly PR solely triggered by the (IAU) executive committee to engage with the public,” said Queloz, now of the Astrophysics Group of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, U.K. “Given the context of the exercise I think it is unlikely the community of professional will use any of these names. It is worth to keep in mind formally the concept of exoplanet is undefined by the IAU and the agreement on exoplanet definition is, I guess, a prerequisite to any formal naming scheme.”
While a name like HD 149026 b (now Smertrios) might be a turnoff to the public, it has been the name of a very important exoplanet since its discovery in 2005, and there is a deep scientific technical and even emotional connection to the old. So its new name will most likely have an uphill fight.
One of the co-discoverers of HD 149026 b is Debra Fischer, now a professor of astronomy at Yale University. Asked her view of the 31 new exoplanet names she replied:
“It would take a big push to change the names of exoplanets in the published literature. Every future publication would need to cross-list the former name(s) and this would be awkward and somewhat time consuming. Never say never, but it would require significant motivation for me to do this and I’m not feeling it right now.”
Jason Wright, an astronomer and astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University, said that doesn’t expect the new names to catch on — with exoplanet scientists, with academic journals, and as a result probably not with the public. Wright is one of several who maintain exoplanet databases and who sent a letter to the IAU in 2013 questioning its proper role in exoplanet naming.
“As part of the IAU’s traditional role in setting standards for nomenclature, they are solving a problem that doesn’t exist, with little or no buy-in from the stakeholders — both exactly the opposite of what they should be doing as a professional society,” he said yesterday. “I applaud the IAU for its public outreach efforts here, but I’m very annoyed with the way they’ve sold this to the public and not included the exoplanet community in the process.”
In fairness, the IAU does not say that the former names should be avoided or demoted — unlike the 2006 IAU decision to formally strip Pluto of its planet status, making it a “dwarf planet.” As the organization puts it, “The winning names are to be used freely in parallel with the existing scientific nomenclature, with due credit to the clubs or organizations that proposed them.” The group also acknowledges that it doesn’t have a monopoly on exoplanet naming.
Addressing the concerns of the scientific community, IAU Executive Committee member Thierry Montmerle said that discoverers of the named planets were contacted at the beginning of the process “and most of them expressed that they were enthusiastic about it; they provided comments on their discovery, which were published from the start on the NameExoWorlds web page.
“The (IAU) Working Group also agreed that the public names would never supersede the scientific designations. This has been recalled many times at each step.”
(Montmerle’s full response has been provided in the subsequent Many Worlds post, “The IAU on ExoNames.”)
The ExoNames do have their supporters. Franck Marchis is a planetary scientist and chair of the exoplanet group of the SETI Institute, and he sees real value in the new names.
“It’s part an inherent part of exploration of putting names on maps, even if those names may look silly in the future. The naming of those worlds has a significant psychological impact, we basically make them real, and more accessible to the public who can now talk about them without having to look through a nomenclature of random letters and numbers,” he said.
“I predict that they will be a lot of projects in school on the names of 55 Cancri planets (Galileo, Brahe, Lippershey, Janssen and Harriot) and on the discovery of Dimidium. If one of those kids got interested in science because of these names, we succeeded.”
So will they be used at all? Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has started an online poll to see what scientists, and the public, think about whether the new names will be used.
His site is called Metaculus (http://www.metaculus.com/questions/38/) and it asks this question: “Will the IAU-sanctioned Exoplanet Names come into regular use?”
The number of respondents has been limited, but the answer so far has been a resounding “no.”
Laughlin says he has nothing in particular against the names chosen — okay, he does say that some are pretty silly — but he does believe it is way too early to be naming the exoplanets at all. We know too little about them at this point to give appropriate names, he says, and so there’s only a slim chance that they will last. “Really, what we have about exoplanets is preconceptions,” he said.
To make his point — one he first made in 2008 — he harkens back to a passage in the Ray Bradbury classic, “The Martian Chronicles.” In it, the colonizing Earthlings give names to Martian locales that reflect their own realities and aspirations. But the names have nothing to do with the planet, or with the longtime Martian inhabitants who — in “The Chronicles” at least — had lived there for eons.
As Bradbury wrote:
“The old Martian names were names of water and air and hills. They were the names of snows that emptied south in the stone canals to fill the empty seas. And the names of sealed and buried sorcerers and towers and obelisks. And the rockets struck at the names like hammers, breaking away the marble into shale, shattering the crockery milestones that named the old towns, in the rubble of which great pylons were plunged with new names: Iron Town, Steel Town, Aluminum City, Electric Village, Corn Town, Grain Villa, Detroit II, all the mechanical names and the metal names from Earth.”
Laughlin followed the Bradbury quote by saying that “I think we’ll eventually reach the extrasolar planets, and in so doing, we’ll find out what their true names are.” His views haven’t changed.
The question of naming exoplanets is not a new one, and there is a clear logic behind trying to come up with something in addition to the likes of PSR 1257+12 (now Poltergeist.)
Public interest is essential to continued exoplanet research, especially when it comes to paying for the space and ground telescopes needed to make progress in the future. And as researchers acknowledge, the hugely successful New Horizons mission to Pluto — approved in the 1980s — would probably never have taken place if the planet had already been demoted to a “dwarf planet.” Names matter. And while the exoplanetary descriptors given by scientists work well for them, they can leave non-scientists cold and uninterested.
An additional concern at the time was the emergence of groups offering exoplanet naming rights for a fee. So the IAU asked one of its bodies, Commission 53, to look into the issue.
Unable to see a good way to change the naming regime, their 2012 final report reads:
“In the last several years the C53 discussed and debated at some length several issues regarding the nomenclature for newly discovered extrasolar planets. The first issue arose as a result of a detailed paper written by W. Lyra proposing a scheme for naming exoplanets by using a number of names from the classical (Greek, Latin) literature, rather than by the more mundane, but functional, current system of using the star’s name (e.g. 51 Peg) followed by lower case letters, in order of discovery, e.g., 51 Peg b, c, d.
The C53 decided against changing the current system of naming exoplanets, which is geared toward the clarity of astronomical databases of stars and exoplanets.”
This issue of clarity is quite significant since there are already more than 2,000 confirmed exoplanets, and more than 500 solar systems with more than one exoplanet. Both numbers are expected to grow rapidly in the years ahead since there are an essentially infinite number of exoplanets out there. So the exoplanets named so far are only a small pool in an ever expanding ocean.
Nonetheless, the IAU executive board rejected the Commission 53 conclusions and set up the international naming contest that concluded in December. Among the new names: Tadmor (Arabic for the ancient city of Palymra), Draugr (an “undead” creature in Norse mythology), Quijote (the famed literary tilter at windmills) and Taphao Thong (one of two sisters in a Thai folk tale.) For a complete list of new exoplanet and star names, go to: http://nameexoworlds.iau.org/names
The chair of the original Commission 53 committee, Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, was among those overruled, but is not embittered because he does not envision much change. “Yes, it is fun for the public to get involved,” he wrote in an email, “But I expect that most astronomers will at best put these names in parentheses in their published work, and continue to focus on the usual astronomical nomenclature.”
Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had a slightly different take on the namings:
“Yes, there is not much enthusiasm to learn and use these names but perhaps they’ll appeal to future users,” he wrote. “I can imagine how one of those ‘named’ planetary systems becomes the focus of intense attention due to a discovery – say of an Earth-like planet with an interesting atmosphere. It is possible that the discoverers might decide to use the new name(s) as a convenient shorthand, then everyone else might start using it. But short of that, I do not see me or my colleagues using these new names.
“On the other hand, it is good that IAU is doing it – or else we might have ended up with who knows what names.”
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.