Magazine article Word Ways

Wordplay in Astronomy

Magazine article Word Ways

Wordplay in Astronomy

Article excerpt

No area of study creates more new names than astronomy. The USNO B1.0 database includes about a billion stars, and the Guide Star Catalog II will contain about two billion stars and galaxies when it is done. Unfortunately for logologists, though, the vast quantity of names requires that virtually all of them be formed by conventional rules with no room for creativity. Most astronomical names are simply combinations of letters and numbers indicating their location and/or time of discovery. Still, there is leeway in many places for astronomers to show their sense of humor in their selection of names. Here are some stories that I, a layman, have encountered in my following of astronomical news.

Comets are named after their discoverers. Other newly discovered objects in the solar system start with a provisional name consisting of an ever-increasing arbitrary number, the year of discovery, and an arbitrary letter combination. Sometimes, though, these nondescript names leave their mark. The first trans-Neptune object, (15760) 1992 QB1, served as the source for the name "cubewano" (from QB1), which applies to the class of such objects.

There are about 150,000 discovered asteroids, but only about 15,000 have been named beyond their provisional names. The guidelines are relatively loose--do not be offensive; do not use political names from someone dead less than 100 years; do not sell names. Because of the quantity, the name is accompanied by a number, assigned sequentially. They range numerically from 1 Ceres to (at last count) 99942 Apophis; alphabetically from 20813 Aakashshah (for Aakash Shah, a 2004 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winner; it also happens to be a pyramid word) to 2098 Zyskin (for a Russian astronomer). The 9000th asteroid is named HAL, after the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Asteroids 1227 through 1234 are named 1227 Geranium, 1228 Scabiosa, 1229 Tilia, 1230 Riceia, 1231 Auricula, 1232 Cortusa, 1233 Kobresia, 1234 Elyna. (All are plant genera, except 1231 is for the plant species Primula auricula, and Ricea is named for amateur astronomer Hugh Rice.) The initials spell out G. Stracke, a German astronomer who had requested that no planet be named after him.

There are also 30439 Moe, 30440 Larry, 30441 Curly, and 30444 Shemp.

In browsing the blog of the Annals of Improbable Research, I came across a tidbit from Oct. 19, 2004 calling attention to the following article: Alan W. Harris and Alan W. Harris, "On the revision of radiometric albedos and diameters of asteroids," Icarus 126:450-454 (1997).

The article includes the following footnote:

1. Since the authors' contributions to this work were equal, the order listed is alphabetical. And yes, the middle names are both "William".

Ralph Alpher, with his PhD advisor George Gamow, planned a paper calculating the proportions of hydrogen, helium, and heavier elements expected from the Big Bang. Gamow humorously suggested that the eminent physicist Hans Bethe be added as an author so that the author list would read Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, a play on the first three Greek letters. The paper was published as Alpher, R. A., H. Bethe, G. Gamow, 1948. "The origin of chemical elements." Physical Review 73: 803. Appropriately, this issue was dated April 1.

Gamow wrote later, in his book The Creation of the Universe,

   Dr. Bethe, who received a copy of the manuscript, did not object,
   and, as a matter of fact, was quite helpful in subsequent
   discussions. There was, however, a rumor that later, when the
   alpha, beta, gamma theory went temporarily on the rocks, Dr. Bethe
   seriously considered changing his name to Zacharias.

   The close fit of the calculated curve and the observed abundances
   is shown in Fig. … 
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