Nomenclature is a universal problem

Would you rather have a planet or a galaxy named after you? Last week astronomers announced the discovery of a new galaxy and three new planets, all of which will need names.
The newly discovered planets orbit the star Upsilon Andromedae, a star similar to our sun and merely 44 light years away, according to two independent research teams, one from San Francisco State University and the other from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. This is the first time multiple planets have been detected around a star other than our sun, indicating full-blown solar systems may be common and our own is not a fluke of nature.
The three new planets raise the tally to 18 extra-solar planets detected since 1995 when the first was discovered orbiting 51 Pegasi. Thus far, all of the extra-solar planets have been gas giants, much like Jupiter, but while Upsilon Andromedae is visible to the naked eye in the northern sky from June to February, its planets cannot be seen, even using our most powerful telescopes. Scientists inferred their existence by observing perturbations in the movement of the star. The gravitational influence of large planets creates a slight wobble in the star which we can observe.
Unfortunately, Earth-like planets cannot be detected with our current technology because their gravitational influence on a star is negligible. It is unlikely that the Upsilon Andromedae system has any Earth-like planets because of the proximity of the three gas giants to the star. However, the possible existence of moons orbiting one of these planets cannot be ruled out. Indeed, such a moon could easily possess water and an atmosphere. According to Dr. Douglas N. C. Lin, a specialist in planetary formation at the University of California at Santa Cruz, “On one of those satellites, I would probably have beachfront property.”
Meanwhile, researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook revealed they had observed the furthest galaxy from our own to date. Thirteen billion light years away, the galaxy appears as a blurry dot when the ultraviolet light that indicates its presence is gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope and translated into the visual spectrum. Because it takes light from the newly discovered galaxy 13 billion years to reach Earth, the galaxy is only slightly younger than the universe itself; by one estimate, the universe is only 14 billion years old. Looking at this galaxy is like looking back in time, observing some of the earliest conglomerations of matter that arose from the primordial soup of the early universe.
With an estimated 200 billion stars similar to our sun in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and 80 billion or so galaxies beyond, we will likely find a lot more planets. The real trick will not be locating them, but coming up with names for all of them. The International Astronomical Union is responsible for such things. They assign appropriate letters and numbers to all celestial bodies. These names, however, exhibit little imagination. Galaxies have names like NGC2683, representing their positions in the New General Catalog, and stars are called names like BD +36ø 2147. In order to spice up the sky, the astronomical union allows the person who discovers an object to propose a name. Take minor planets in our solar system, for example. The IAU’s Small Bodies Names Committee oversees the assigning of names to the 10,448 minor bodies, largely between Mars and Jupiter, and has set some rules. Any proposed name should be no more than 16 characters and preferably one word, it must be pronounceable in some language, it must be non-offensive, it should not be the name of one of your pets and if it is named after a person or event of historical or political importance, you must wait until 100 years after the person’s death or the event occurred.
These rules leave a lot of leeway. When you look through a telescope at night, you can find some oddly named minor planets. The Beatles are out there — minor planets numbered 4147-50 (appropriately, 4150, Ringo Starr, has the most eccentric orbit). Jerry Garcia (4442) is orbiting the sun, as is Mr. Spock (2309). Just last week, asteroid 9007 was appropriately named James Bond by its discoverers in the Czech republic.
Minor planets are, well, minor, so let’s not unduly trouble ourselves with them; naming everything else will keep us busy enough. If we figure an average of just four planets orbiting each star, we are going to have to scrounge 8×1022 names for all the planets, stars and galaxies. Coincidentally, if we limit the length of names to 16 characters and use the 26 letters of the alphabet and the space, we get almost exactly the same number — 7.98×1022 names. Of course, I’ll feel sorry for the planet that gets named 16 blank spaces in a row, but that’s the way it goes.
Before we start handing out names, though, we should come up with better names for some celestial objects closer to home. Humanity’s contentment with excruciatingly boring names never fails to amaze me. “Earth”, even if it just means dirt, might be acceptable, but “moon”, “sun” and “solar system” really need to be replaced with more attractive nomenclature. Sure, they are descriptively accurate, but they do not have much character. Imagine a conversation with an alien from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri:
“Where are you from?” asks your new, green-skinned friend.
“Earth,” you would reply.
“Dirt?”
“No, Earth. You know, it’s got the moon around it.”
“What star does it orbit?”
“The sun.”
“Which sun?”
The sun.”
“Huh? What solar system are we talking about here?”
The solar system,” you’d say, at which point you would probably get vaporized by his ray gun.
Nevertheless, as we start to use up all the possible 16-letter names, sooner or later your own name will be assigned to something out there, unless you have one of those oddball, way-too-long Eastern European names. So would you rather have a galaxy or a planet?
Sharon Pascarelle, a 32-year-old New York investment banker got a galaxy. Her brother Sebastian, one of the SUNY researchers who discovered the new galaxy, chose to name it after her as a result of her frequent pestering to have her name attached to something in the heavens.
Though excited at first, Sharon was less than thrilled when she saw an image of the galaxy “Sharon.” “It’s just a dot!” she exclaimed, later explaining, “I wanted a planet named after me. I guess I’ll have to settle for a galaxy.”
There is something to be said for getting either. With the galaxy, Sharon gets all the stars and planets in a package deal. If someday we discover the planet “Smeg” in Sharon’s galaxy, then whenever someone asks where “Smeg” is, people will say, “It’s in Sharon.”
On the other hand, a planet might be nice. Had Sebastian found a planet and named it after his sister, any sentient residents of that planet would be called “Sharonians”. Who would not like to have his name placed on an entire civilization?
As for me, I’ll take neither. If an astronomer wants to name something “Trejbal,” hang onto it for one of those asteroids or comets that crosses the orbital path of the Earth. Not just some tiny chunk of rock, but a big, potentially planet-destroying piece of the universe that could someday end the world as we know it. I want to see Bruce Willis in a movie, bracing for the deep impact that will bring Armageddon. I want to see him running around and screaming, “Look out, Trejbal is coming!”

Chris Trejbal’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]