Sunday, August 9, 2015

Naming Revisited - Pluto and Charon Get Tagged

Informal names for features on Charon
In my post on "Naming Astronomical Objects - Power, Productivity, and Privilege," I noted that naming astronomical objects was a serious issue (indeed, that naming anything was a serious issue).  I also mentioned that there was a tension between being able to name things fast enough (given the rate of discoveries) and that of wanting to be thoughtful about it.

The New Horizons Mission to Pluto found a unique way of dealing with that situation when they offered a poll this spring, asking people to vote on what their favorite names would be for potential features in the Pluto system.  The campaign was called "Our Pluto," and thousands of people responded to the call.  The campaign ended in April 2015, allowing the New Horizons team to be ready with a pocketful of names when they arrived in the Pluto system in July 2015.  Before long, the first maps of Pluto and Charon were constructed, and the informal names given to the features were indeed those chosen by people from the Our Pluto voting. 

Informal names for features on Pluto
And many of the names are surprising, given their origins in popular culture, such as "Mordor" and "Balrog" from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Vulcan," "Uhura" and "Kirk" from the Star Trek franchise, "Skywalker" and "Organa" from the Star Wars Universe, and "Cthulhu" from Lovecraft's mythos.  These names have been submitted to the IAU for formalization - it will be interesting to see how that body chooses to react, or if any of the names will be considered unusual at all.

For the most part, I really like the names, and many people agree.  Authors of articles in The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Wired, and io9 talk about the good aspects of the naming campaign, and that they feel positively about these names potentially becoming permanent.  But given my previous post on the issue, I feel just a bit edgy.  One issue we've come up a lot with in the SF, F, H community is dealing with great work from not-so-great people.  The issue has been discussed at length more than I can do justice to here, but was dealt with head on using necessary honesty by Nnedi Okorafor in a post (has swearing) about winning the World Fantasy Award.   (So the place name "Cthulhu" for example, may not be a universally lauded name ...)

Still, we're a democratic society, and voting is as close to public participation in official naming that has come to pass on a major planetary body (in my opinion).  I agree with many of the authors of the articles in that having the public involved is a wonderful thing.  It does not absolve us of our need to be vigilant in naming, but it does offer the opportunity to create and nurture community while we do so.

Image Credit:  NASA/JHU-APL/New Horizons


Amy said...

Having laypeople involved in naming is a fantastic idea, and Pluto, in particular, holds a place dear in the heart of popular culture. I think part of that is a desire to support for the underdog--consider the outcry when Pluto was demoted from "planet-- and part is that it is our solar system's most distant.. whatever we call it now? We root for Pluto!

Uhura is my favorite name. It better get approved. :-) Organa is great, too.

J.A. Grier said...

I think a lot of people feel as you do - a very close connection with the Pluto (dwarf planet) - and sense it has an "underdog" sort of status. And Uhura is definitely a great name.