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Name Dropping: Want to Be a Star?

Article

Phil Plait

Volume 30.5, September / October 2006

If you think that a star can be named after you, and that once one is, it’s all official, think again. The whole commercial “star registry” charade is awkward for astronomers.

But above and beyond there’s still one name left over
And that is the name that you never will guess
The name that no human research can discover
But the cat himself knows and will never confess.

—T.S. Elliot, The Naming of Cats

In the late fall, the constellation Andromeda looms high above the horizon. It’s not a terribly bright constellation: the stars are faint enough that even low lights from a nearby town or city can wash them out.

But in ancient times, when light pollution was lower, those stars shone brightly over the Middle East, and astronomers carefully named them. The stars of Andromeda still bear the nomenclature of their arabic origins: Almach (a wild cat), Mirach (probably a rendition of Mizar, the loin, distorted over the centuries), and Alpheratz (the horse’s navel, of all things).

There are thousands of stars in Andromeda, of course. Most are too faint to have names and instead have catalog numbers, such as SAO 54033, or GSC 2261, or the poetic HIP 7607 (which, unfortunately, has nothing to do with the hip, unlike Mizar). But there is another star in Andromeda, not nearly so bright as Almach or Mirach, even fainter than many of its brethren that boast only serial designations. It’s so faint that you’d need a hefty pair of binoculars or a telescope to see it, and even if you did, you’d probably pass right over it, so ordinary is its glow. Yet it has a name, a full-blown proper name. You might recognize it: the star is named Philip Cary Plait.

How I got that name isn’t terribly interesting (a family tradition to name babies after recently departed loved ones is the culprit), but how the star got that name is a different story altogether. It’s a tale of morally shady dealings, outrage, and sadness. But most of all, it’s plain old bad astronomy.

So Many as the Stars of the Sky in Multitude

What’s in a name? A star, by any other word, would fuse as hot—if only Shakespeare had been an astronomer. But giving things names is so natural to humans. When my daughter was only four years old, she wanted to know the names of everything: types of rocks, insects, trees, even stars. I would tell her what was what (quartz, or praying mantis, or dogwood, or Vega), and she would solemnly repeat it, seemingly committing it to memory. But within a few seconds, we were off to some other phylum of study, the name already forgotten.

Back in the days of CB radio, your name was called your “handle,” a code word I always liked. Names are like handles, letting us grip an object. A name can help you classify an object or understand it better. And really, a name is a way of distinguishing one thing from a thousand others just like it.

The ancient astronomers saw the stars as making patterns in the sky, the constellations. The names they gave the stars were generally associated with the pattern. So the brightest star in Cygnus, the swan, became Deneb, meaning tail. Arcturus means “bear watcher,” appropriate enough for a bright star that appears to follow Ursa Major, the Big Bear, around the celestial pole. My favorite of all are Libra’s Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi, respectively, the northern and southern claws, names given before Libra was split off from Scorpius, the scorpion.

But these are bright stars, of which there are only a few. It’s not hard to imagine astronomers in ancient Greece and Arabia scratching their heads over what to do with fainter stars. The unaided eye can see thousands of stars on a clear night, and that’s quite a brood. The astronomer Bayer simply gave them Greek letters in order of their brightness in a constellation (saddling us with things like Upsilon Coronae Borealis and Epsilon Ursae Majoris).

But even those names run out soon enough, and with the invention of the telescope, things got out of hand. The great cataloguer Flamsteed used numbers, ordering the stars in a constellation from east to west. In the nineteenth century, German astronomers created the Bonner Durchmusterung catalog, using stars’ coordinates (a celestial version of latitude and longitude) to designate them.

After a while, catalogs started getting more specific, so there were lists of double stars, lists of variable stars, lists of red stars, lists of magnetically peculiar stars, lists of stars with an unusual amount of carbon in their spectra. Astronomy, arguably the most beautiful and poetic of the sciences, was becoming laden with a very heavy dose of prosaicness. Of course, there are something like 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. What else can astronomers do?

In reality, astronomers can’t do all that much. But where science sees a dead end, the free market sees an opportunity.

That Worthy Name by Which Ye Are Called

Enter the International Star Registry (ISR). In the early 1980s, they saw that there’s gold in them thar points of light. They figured, with all those stars in the sky, why not sell people the right to name them? So they set up shop. Send them $50 and the name you want to give a star, and in return, they send you a kit that contains an artistically decorated certificate with the star name and coordinates, a small map with the position of the star on it, and a note saying that this is now the official name of the star. They added that “your” star name will be registered in a book that will be placed in a Swiss vault and also registered with the Library of Congress.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, there’s a problem with it. Not a problem for the ISR, certainly, since they claim to have sold hundreds of thousands of stars at that price, so they’re doing pretty well. The problem—or actually, problems—is that it’s not much more than a scam.

For one thing, getting something into the Library of Congress isn’t all that hard. They acquire something like 7,000 items every day! According to the Library’s Web site, items are acquired “Through exchange with libraries in this country and abroad, gifts, materials received from local, state and federal agencies as well as foreign governments, purchase, and copyright deposits.” With 530 miles of shelves in the Library, there’s room for lots of things that maybe aren’t all that special. So claiming that getting the catalog into the Library of Congress makes it special is a little deceptive.

Turns out, Switzerland wasn’t all that thrilled with having its name used in the ISR ads—the ISR had neglected to ask permission first from the Swiss government to use their country in the ads. Given Switzerland’s almost pathological history of neutrality, such a statement by them is a pretty strong indication you’ve done something wrong. Anyway, the claim of storing the catalogs in a Swiss vault is simply silly. For a set fee, you can get space in such a vault and put whatever you want in there: a deck of cards, that key on your key ring that doesn’t seem to fit any locks, an unmatched sock, that awful candy dish your mother-in-law gave you on your last birthday, what have you.

A third problem is that the name you give the star is in no way official. In fact, there’s no real official name for any star in the sky. There are names that astronomers use, names they agree upon, but even then, things are a bit fuzzy. The brightest star in the sky has the name Sirius. But it’s also called Alpha Canis Majoris, 9 Canis Majoris, HR 2491, HD 48915, and BD-16 1591. Any and all of these are equally good names for it, and which one you use depends on what you’re doing. At a star party, you’d use Sirius, but if you’re studying X-rays emitted from the star, you’d call it RX J0645.1-1642. Infrared astronomers might call it IRAS 06429-1639. Bad science fiction authors call it the Dog Star.

It’s much the same as how you might address a person depending on the circumstances: John if you’re a friend, Mr. Smith if it’s formal, John Smith if it’s a letter, or Mr. J0hn Sm1th if you’re sending him spam.

As a final piece of silliness, some astronomers told me that they looked into the stars sold by the ISR and discovered that in some cases, the same star has been sold multiple times to different people. 200 billion stars in the galaxy, and the ISR had to resell the same few over and over again.

That Was the Name Thereof

There is a group of astronomers who keep track of all this. They are the International Astronomical Union Commission 5, an appropriate handle for the Keepers of the Names. Basically, they lay out a set of rules to use when something in the sky gets named. Asteroids, for example, need to have well-determined orbits first. Then they are given a number, and then the discoverer can propose a name, which they must defend. Then, sometimes months or even years later, the asteroid gets that name, unless it’s rejected for some reason. IAU Commission 5 has, on its Web page (http://cdsweb.u-strasbg.fr/iau-spec.html) rules for naming just about everything . . . except, apparently, stars. They do list how to name something using coordinates, what symbols you can use (for example, slashes, dashes, and underscores are allowed, though, oddly, not the degree sign), and so on. But they don’t say anything explicit about paying money and giving a star the name of your poodle. Since it’s not specifically ruled out, I suppose you could argue that it’s allowed.

Incidentally, the IAU does have a Web site (www.iau.org/ BUYING_STAR_NAMES.244.0.html) about star-naming companies, and it has a clear ring of distaste running through it (it refers to the practice as “charlatanry”). So their position on this issue is pretty clear.

So, if you are running a star-naming company, you cannot state that the name given to a star is “official,” since there are no real official names for stars. Saying that implies, strongly, that astronomers will use your name for a star instead of whatever designation it already has. Even if this isn’t outright wrong, it’s at the very least misleading.

The New York Office of Consumer Affairs certainly felt this way. It levied an injunction against the ISR for using deceptive advertising in New York City, and the ISR was found guilty on multiple counts, with fines up to $3,500 (a tiny fraction, of course, of the company’s income). The Federal Trade Commission weighed in, forbidding the ISR from using the Library of Congress in its ads too. This small road block hasn’t even slowed down the ISR. It still advertises, mostly around Christmas (though the ads no longer mention the Library of Congress).

Many people ask, understandably, what harm does this cause? Who cares if people are making money by selling star names? After all, caveat emptor. But, it turns out that there is a nasty side to this business.

Purpose Under the Heavens

Many stars are “bought” from the ISR as gifts to friends and family, of course. But a great number of them are purchased as memorials, a tribute to a loved one who has died. This is a sad and beautiful thought, to be able to commemorate a lost relative with a star in the sky.

But the star isn’t really named after that person, and certainly no astronomer uses that name for the star. Again, this wouldn’t normally be a problem (as long as such deception is okay by you), except that there are times when the people involved go to an observatory and ask to see the star named after their dead son or daughter.

Imagine being an astronomer during an observatory’s public night, happily showing people the wonders of the universe through the telescope, then having someone ask you to see the star they named after their daughter who died tragically. They only have the name they gave it, not the position or any other name that might be useful. Worse, they really, honestly think that every astronomer has access to the ISR and can easily find their star. Having run many a public night myself, I can only imagine how horrible I would feel. In such cases, what do you do, tell the people they were lied to, or deceived, crushing them? Or do you keep quiet, spare their raw feelings, and perpetuate the lie by showing them some random star?

Many astronomers don’t have to imagine this. It’s happened to them. One astronomer, Bob Martino, the assistant director of the Perkins Observatory at Ohio Wesleyan University, has had this happen to him at least four times. At first, he learned to swallow his anger and simply point the telescope. Finally though, he couldn’t take it quietly any more. He put up a Web page railing against the idea of selling stars. He said the practice was fraudulent, a scam (after all, the ISR was found guilty of misleading advertising in New York City). He was pretty clear about how he felt.

In the year 2000, the ISR retaliated. Their legal arm threatened to sue the university, the observatory, its director, and Martino. The ISR, backed by a lot of money, put quite a bit of legal pressure on the planetarium, which did not have a lot of money. Martino took his page down, though he was unhappy about it. Nothing Martino said about the ISR was untrue, just unflattering.

It’s interesting to note that the ISR was never directly indicated anywhere on Martino’s page. There was a link at the bottom of the page about the New York City case, which mentioned the ISR, but that was it. Even that was too much for the ISR, which again contacted the university, insisting that the Web site could not talk about star naming at all. From a baseless case of slander, the situation was quickly turning into one of First Amendment rights. As Martino put it, it was “. . . a case of a consumer advocate being muzzled by a company of extremely questionable moral integrity.” After this event, several astronomers who had Web pages about star-naming companies edited their pages, carefully and prominently mentioning the First Amendment. Some sites even linked to a copy of the Constitution.

For his part, Martino kept up the fight. He made his opinion clear on the Internet through various mailing lists and bulletin boards. The ISR once again contacted his university, stating that the company wanted Martino to cease talking about it, claiming that Martino was representing himself as a spokesman for the university. This claim, Martino says, has “no basis whatsoever.” He says his comments were made on his own time, using his private Internet account through his own Internet provider, and the university had nothing to do with it. Still, the university was being pressured by the ISR’s legal arm, so they sent Martino a letter making it clear that he’d better stop talking about the ISR. Martino wound up moving the whole page about star naming to a private Web site, which is mirrored in many places (for example, at www.enzerink.net/peter/astronomy/starfaq/).

Martino is still pretty ticked about all this. As he put it, “A small company operating a business based on deception can squelch free speech rights at a university merely by having a lawyer send a letter.” It also doesn’t help him to remember those grieving people to whom he had to lie.

Martino does extract some small amount of satisfaction, though, that his star-naming page gets far more hits than it did before the ISR threatened him. Evidently, the publicity woke up other astronomers to this, and they now link their sites to his page as well.

I’ll note that Martino has a daughter, named Celeste: she is named after the stars, and not the other way around.

Their Starry Host

And what of “my” star, Philip Cary Plait? It’s a dim bulb, a tenth-magnitude speck, lost among thousands of others. I couldn’t find it with binoculars if I tried. My brothers got it for me for my birthday many years ago—yes, from the ISR. I was curious about it when I was first researching this topic, so I called the ISR and asked them about it. It turns out that this was one of the first stars they “sold,” and they had to go to their first catalog to find it. They couldn’t give me the exact position, but the information I got was good enough that I was able to figure it which star it was. Here’s an image of it:

Can you spot it? It’s the one dead center. The field of view of the image is roughly a degree across, twice the width of the full moon. Look at all those stars! Some people say that studying astronomy makes them feel insignificant. I actually have proof of it.

The final humiliation is that “my” star, of course, already has a name—BD+48 683. It’s been listed for over a century in the German Bonner Durchmusterung catalog used by practically every astronomer on the planet. Now that’s an official name.

The Stars Will Fall from the Sky, and the Heavenly Bodies Will Be Shaken

In the end, I suggest to people that if they really want to buy a star, they should feel free, but they should be aware of what they are getting for their money. You could just as easily pick any star in the sky, even the brightest one, and make your own certificate on your computer claiming ownership. It’s certainly just as official as what the ISR does.

Here’s an even better idea. Most observatories and planetaria are strapped for cash. Instead of buying a star, you could give them a donation, and they can use those funds to sponsor educational programs. That way, instead of hogging one star all for yourself, you’ll be giving hundreds or thousands of people a chance to see all the stars in the sky.

Remember—the stars are for everyone, and they’re free. Go to your local observatory and take a peek.

Phil Plait

Philip Plait, Ph.D., is a renowned astronomer with more than two decades of professional research and education experience. He has written articles for such magazines as Astronomy and Sky and Telescope, as well as national and international newspapers. He has appeared on national television news and documentaries many times, including the Sci-Fi Channel's Countdown to Doomsday and National Geographic's Is It Real? His Web site, Bad Astronomy, has won numerous awards, such as Best Science Blog of 2007, and is read by millions of people every year.