What’s in a name?
Not much at all, if you hold with Shakespeare, who mused in Romeo and Juliet that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What he meant was that names don’t really matter, because they don’t change the nature of the named.
Or perhaps that’s too simplistic. Whether in ancient creation myths or modern public relations campaigns, names aren’t merely collections of written symbols or uttered sounds—they are subtle-but-powerful tools to shape reality. In this view, a name matters immensely, because it can profoundly influence its bearer’s identity, purpose and fate.
The full, grandiose breadth of human ego stirs in the deep spaces between these two perspectives. And so to ask, “what’s in a name?” is really to wonder if our actions could ever be of greater significance, to ponder whether our penchant for nomenclature might somehow imbue even some small fraction of the universe with enduring meaning. (Incidentally, Shakespeare was gloomy about this, too—just read his famous soliloquy from Macbeth.)
On August 11, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced that it will soon assign official names to 20 planetary systems as the culmination of its “NameExoWorlds” contest. Composed of professional astronomers, the IAU is the only group recognized by the scientific community with the authority to designate and classify celestial bodies. Through a process of public and semi-private polling, 15 stars and 32 exoplanets in total will receive new names alongside their official catalog designations. The candidate names for each system were chosen from submissions solicited by the IAU from astronomy clubs and non-profit organizations around the world. You can vote for your favorite names here until October 31. The results will be announced in November.
Planets occupy a special place in the human psyche, probably because we live on one. Most of us don’t bat an eye at the notion of stars or even whole galaxies lacking given names, but a planet without a name seems somehow distressing. Based on all we now know, there are sound astrophysical and astrobiological reasons to suspect that planets are in fact more worthy of names than almost anything else in the universe, because they stand alone as the fundamental pathway for names to exist at all, through the genesis of life and the evolution of sentient beings—the little, self-aware pieces of the cosmos privileged to name all the rest. So if you care at all about life, or what it means to live within “the world,” you should care about planets, whether around our star or others, and it is easier to care for something when you have given it a name.
Until now, the only official names for exoplanets have come from a bland, unimaginative, nearly algorithmic process. Each exoplanet usually takes the name of its star, with a lowercase letter added after the star’s name to delineate its order of discovery. Since a planet’s star is almost always discovered before the planet itself, a planet-bearing star receives a lowercase letter “a.” So the first planet found around a star will get “b,” the second “c,” the third “d,” and so on. Naming becomes more complicated if the planet-bearing star is part of a multi-star system. Alpha Centauri, the nearest neighboring star system to our Sun, harbors two sun-like stars, Alpha Centauri A and B. One planet has been tentatively detected around Alpha Centauri B. Thus it would receive the name Alpha Centauri Bb.
As cumbersome as this system may be, it is made worse by the fact that most stars have no names at all beyond their catalog designations. In many of these cases, the star will thus take its name from various details of the scientific projects that brought attention to it by discovering its planetary system, which leads to exoplanets with unwieldy monikers like “2MASS J04414489+2301513b” or “MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb.”
Even though more than 2,000 exoplanets have been discovered and confirmed in the past two decades, the IAU had stayed mostly mum on the topic of naming them until a couple of years ago. The reasons for it breaking its silence can be traced back to 2006, when the IAU became famous (infamous?) for demoting Pluto to “dwarf planet” status. That decision sparked outrage among laypeople and more than a few scientists, including Alan Stern, the top researcher behind NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. After the demotion of the world he had devoted much of his career to studying, Stern and some like-minded colleagues went to war with the IAU to win the hearts and minds of the general public.
Exoplanets and their bland, IAU-enforced names were an easy target for anyone wanting to show that the Union was out of touch with public opinion. So Stern and several colleagues formed the private company Uwingu, which offers crowd-sourced naming services for exoplanets and for craters on Mars. Unlike the IAU, which prohibits naming celestial bodies after pets, living people, copyrighted material or ideologically charged individuals, Uwingu has looser restrictions. You could name a crater or a whole planet after your pet cat, Mohammed or Justin Bieber. The company’s critics point out that those services come at a high price, considering Uwingu’s names are not sanctioned by the IAU. It costs $9.99 to propose a name, and names require 1,000 votes (at 99 cents apiece) to become eligible for association with a particular planet or Martian crater. In return for all this, the proposer receives a certificate confirming the new celestial name.
All this makes Uwingu appear uncomfortably similar to the many fly-by-night schemes that have emerged over the years peddling real estate on the moon and naming rights to stars to gullible buyers. But, to the company’s credit, some of that money goes into a fund to support scientific research and education.
The IAU has struck back against Uwingu twice. Its first counterpunch was a series of press releases stating that it considered Uwingu and all other independent, commercial astro-naming efforts illegitimate scams. One of those press releases, Stern later told Space.com, caused Uwingu’s sales to plummet by a factor of 100 within just one weekend. This was followed by the announcement of NameExoWorlds, the IAU’s own, entirely free effort at crowd-sourced exoplanet naming.
A review of candidate names that are now open for voting doesn’t make the NameExoWorlds campaign or the IAU look much better than Uwingu. To once again quote the Bard, “A plague o’ both your houses!”
To begin with, some of the names appear to break the IAU’s much-vaunted rules. For instance, the IAU states that it is not allowed to propose the same name for a host star and a planet around it, yet one entry for the planetary system of Tau Boötis suggests calling both the star and its planet “Alfraganus.” The IAU also insists that a proposed name be “pronounceable (in some language),” yet one candidate set for the Upsilon Andromedae planetary system consists of the unpronounceable “DOSEBG,” “DOSPS,” “DOSLD” and “DOSRM.”
There is also a strange surfeit of Japanese names among the candidates, with appellations like “Sakura,” “Kagura” and “Hikari” repeating again and again from system to system. There were also three proposals for the Japanese sun goddess “Amaterasu”. There are proposals to name the entire known contents of planetary systems after Japanese soybeans, or Japanese desserts, or famous Japanese professional wrestlers. This is probably just due to an over-representation from exuberant Japanese astronomy clubs rather than a nefarious attempt to game the NameExoWorlds system, but for the IAU to let the imbalance persist into voting seems amateurish.
Elsewhere, many of the names are glib non-sequiturs that would be questionable for a pet, let alone a planet. Worse still, it seems some of them have displaced more thoughtful and euphonious suggestions. Paul Kalas, one of the co-discoverers of the exoplanet Fomalhaut b, proposed the name “Phantasos” for the exoplanet in a statement he provided to the IAU. The name comes from a Greek god of dreams, and is a poetic reference both to Kalas’s heritage and to the fact that many astronomers thought for years he had dreamt up Fomalhaut B. Yet “Phantasos” is not among the options listed for that exoplanet; instead, you can vote to call it names like “Ninja” or “Leisurely Fish.” As clunky as the old naming system is, it may be preferable to this.
Of course, presenting provocative choices is the point—we the people are getting to choose, after all, and presumably a contentious democratic process will let the best, most fitting names win—though the IAU has not detailed exactly how it intends to avoid the ballot-stuffing perils of Internet voting. And maybe it’s true that whether it’s the IAU, Uwingu or any other campaign, it’s best to consider exoplanet naming as just a whimsical divergence. There are, after all, too many planets to name—the hundreds of billions that likely populate our galaxy alone exceed our meager vocabularies.
So what’s in an exoplanet’s name? To know for sure would require at least studying them with billion-dollar space telescopes. Better yet would be to visit them in the flesh, or at least in silicon. Pretending we presently know enough to name them with wisdom seems vaingloriously premature. In a more perfect, hopeful world, we could consider all their names provisional, mere placeholders to be someday confirmed or discarded in the light of better evidence gathered beneath alien suns.
For now, however, the sole vote I could cast in confidence from the IAU’s selection would go to a proposed name for the planet-hosting pulsar PSR 1257+12: “Hubris.”