The IAU, in the person of Executive Committee member and former General Secretary Thierry Montmerle, wrote the following response to an earlier column, “(Mostly) Thumbs Down on ExoNames.” The response to the article was first posted as a comment on the Many Worlds site, but to ensure that it is seen by readers I am posting the full email now:
We found it quite interesting, since, for once, it concerns the feedback from the astronomers’ community, which is certainly as important for us as the reactions from the public.
We do have a few comments to offer, that may supplement your already rich article.
They are listed below.
Many thanks for you interest in the IAU and in the “NameExoWorlds” contest !
1) The exoplanet community has been involved from the start. IAU Commission C53 set up a Working Group including, among others, Didier Queloz and Geoff Marcy. This Working Group made the recommendation for defining the initial list of 305 confirmed exoplanets for public naming. They also agreed that the names could be given by the public (not by the discoverers or scientists), with the aim of having various names representing different cultures all over the world. Given the results of the contest, it is obvious this goal has been successfully reached.
The discoverers of the named planets have also been 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 Working Group also agreed that the public names would never supersede the scientific designations. This has been recalled many times at each step.
2) Astronomy clubs and associations were invited to engage into the contest by voting for the top “most popular” systems (i.e., most interesting in their opinion). As a result, we decided to select the top 20 for naming proposals by the public. The resulting list is remarkably diverse and reflects rather closely the wide range of the present-day “exoplanet science” (restricted to confirmed objects having been studied for many years, not to recent “frontier” objects like the Kepler exoplanet candidates)
3) All the names (including star names) were the subject of 275 argued proposals sent by over 600 registered clubs, then submitted to a public, worldwide vote, and over 500,000 were cast by voters from 180 countries. The contest also generated over 800 articles in 54 countries. Thus the large impact of the contest on the public across the world is undeniable. Also, we have seen in many occasions that the contest gave the opportunity to the astronomical associations to address locally the non-specialist public at large about stars and planets. In this regard, the contest in itself is also a success in arousing a wider interest for astronomy.
4) Whether or not the scientific community uses these names is actually irrelevant, this has never been the purpose of the contest. Professional astronomers still use concurrently common “nicknames” and scientific designations for astronomical objects: alpha CMa and Sirius, M42 and Orion, NGC7293 and the Helix Nebula, M31 and the Andromeda galaxy, etc., but the public certainly prefers to use the nicknames when they exist. The fact is the names approved by the IAU are already quoted in Wikipedia, so the public will very likely use them whenever an opportunity arises.
5) On the other hand, the public names are now officially sanctioned by the IAU and included in the SIMBAD database (and are in the process of being included in other professional databases).
6) We’ll see in the long term whether the names are caught up by the public in general, but in our opinion it will be more a matter of the future scientific interest of the objects themselves (exoplanets and/or stars) than of their public name. There is little doubt that any future press release on HD149026b, for instance, even if written by scientists, will speak about the planet “Smertrios” rather than use the scientific “license plate” designation.
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.