Thoughts on NameExoWorlds

The IAU has a new planet-naming contest out, NameExoWorlds.

First, I have to say this looks an awful lot like Uwingu’s planet naming contest, which was subject to withering scorn from many quarters.   Some (in unlinkable Facebook posts, which I can’t even find now) pointed out that Uwingu’s scheme was unfair because it excluded most of humanity from its contest by making the contest in English, cost money, and Web-based (since many or most people don’t have regular WWW access).   As I recall, one commenter stated that since the exoplanets are the shared heritage of all of humanity, it was inappropriate for a subset of humanity to name them.  The IAU scheme is free, but their site is (currently) English-only and Web-only, so those criticisms apply here, too.

The IAU itself protested Uwingu’s project on the grounds that Uwingu was misleading people into thinking its names would be “official” (debatable) and that it was charging for both nominations and votes (true).

The IAU’s contest is distinguished from Uwingu’s in four important ways:

  • Nominations and votes are free; no money is being raised for anything
  • The IAU is officially sanctioning these names, the way it does, say, asteroid names
  • Groups like Uwingu can participate in principle (apparently), but in practice Uwingu itself is excluded because it not non-profit and it charges for nominations and votes.
  • The IAU doesn’t have the permission of the discoverers.

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 2.26.46 PM

Recall, Uwingu got permission and blessing from Xavier Dumusque, discoverer of alpha Centauri B b, in its naming contest for that planet.  One would think the IAU would want to do the same, especially after the IAU Commission 53 wrote this about exoplanet-naming schemes (to my applause):

the process must be respectful of intellectual property: it must have the formal agreement of the discoverers, who may participate in the process

Apparently, this rule, written by the IAU, does it not apply to the IAU.  I’m not being facetious — I asked.  Here is what IAU General Seceretary Thierry Montmerle told me (on the record):

This sentence applied to organizations submitting their own process (PR of Aug. 12, 2013), it has been copied here but is not applicable. The IAU is handling this part, and this sentence will be deleted.

I wonder what the members of Commission 53 think about this.  I was also curious about how the IAU decided who the “discoverers” were (before I was told that it doesn’t matter, because their permission isn’t needed).  I was told:

Actually, one of the reasons for offering “old” exoplanets for naming is precisely that the discovery rights may indeed be controversial because of the multiplicity of teams -and their size in the case of space missions, in particular. So, in a way, the list given is “public domain”, except that no one else is allowed to use it for the moment. You can call it also a “transfer of intellectual property to the IAU”, much like the “copyright” transferred to the IAU by authors of articles appearing in its publications like Symposia.

I don’t understand this at all, but there you are.

Anyway, I appreciate that the IAU is seriously promoting public interest in astronomy, especially exoplanets, and I’m not opposed to a naming scheme like this (I wasn’t particularly bothered by Uwingu’s, either).  I do wonder, though, if it ever would have bothered without Uwingu leading the way.

That said, I do find it untoward that the IAU is ignoring its own Commission 53 and the wishes of the discoverers of these exoplanets.  I hope Commission 53 weighs in on the subject publicly, the way it did the last time the IAU moved ahead on the subject without it.


3 thoughts on “Thoughts on NameExoWorlds

  1. LocalFluff

    I think that IAU should focus on naming systems which is distinct and useful for astronomers.

    Trivial names should be let to the public to decide and use. Uwingu is a good example. If their naming of features on Mars becomes a standard, then so be it. It’s like with local names on Earth. Just have a look at a map, thenaming of hills, lakes, rivers, cities is a mess. But it works because it is a standard set by spontaneous tradition. And maybe the Japanese will use completely different trivial names because of language differences, so what?

    The IAU caused unnecessary conflict about Pluto. Just like the ex-planet Ceres was demoted from planet to the first asteroid and was named “1 Ceres”, Pluto should’ve become the first minor planet, or maybe even better first plutoid, named “I Pluto” with a roman numberal. We hardly expect more plutoids than the roman numerals can handle. (Then you might say that Ceres, not Pluto, was the first dwarf planet, but that’s how history evolves trivial names, it will never be finally fixed, it should instead be standardized as is).

    Scientists of course ignore such trivial names and instead look at the actual properties of the object.

  2. jtw13 Post author

    “Well-characterized” refers to the planets’ orbits, not their masses. We typically know the phase and period of the planet to better than 10% for planets on that list; sometimes we know these quantities to several significant figures. Masses for RV planets are usually known to around 15%, so that’s actually not too bad, but for some transiting planets we have no mass measurements at all.

    There are many quantities, including radius, surface temperature, orbital inclination, and position angle of ascending node, that are known only roughly or not at all for most planets.

  3. ffp

    The list supposedly contains well characterised planets, but aren’t many of the masses actually minimum-masses?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *