Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Naming Game

You can tell the news has been slow lately when International Astronomical Union's debates reach international headlines. For those that don't know (which I assume is all of you), the IAU is an international collection astronomers who's primary function seems to be naming things. Right now they're debating if they should redefine what a planet is, an act prompted by 2003's discovery of UB313: a body larger than Pluto but farther out. Safe to say by the end of this, we will no longer have nine planets. It may become 12 or 53 or over 200.

To be sure, definitions and names require consistency. We have to be sure we are all calling something the same things so having a single, official agency makes sense. I'm not so sure I agree with the agency's working definition (paraphrasing, "a big round object that orbits a star") because it's too inclusive. The definition holds little value if it suddenly includes every large lump of matter in the system.

I was also amazed how the organization names things. Planets, for example, have a strict regulations: they "must be named after deities of creation, with the exception of plutinos, which are named after underworld deities," according to Wikipedia. Why does a committee name a planet?

Sure it's neat knowing all of our currently named planets are named after Roman gods (especailly for students who have tests on planets and Roman mythology) but that desire for thematic consistency is misplaced. We loose all the neat names for things because they don't fit into a pre-conceived pattern. Why not just let the person(s) who discovered the thing name it? That's how everything else was named. Imagine a world where all oceans are named after a god of the sea or every mountain be named after a lanuage's word for "towering." I can (somewhat) see the need for a body to officially recognize who discovered (and thus gets to name) what, but to say how things are named for the sole purpose of thematic consistency is just intrusive.

"But what if someone names something silly?" you might ask. There's always that possiblity, but if no one wants to call Jupiter "Aunt Edna," then no one will and a better name will emerge. When was the last time you called your car a "horseless carriage?"

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