The United States of Tatooine

The stars are there for the naming. But there are some rules …

Gwynne Dyer

“Tatooine” is, you will surely agree, a pretty stupid name for a planet, but there are so many Star Wars fans that some unfortunate world is bound to end up being called exactly that. Let’s just hope that its inhabitants, if there are any, never find out. On the whole, though, giving more user-friendly names to newly found planets orbiting other stars is a good idea.

There is, for example, a potentially habitable “exoplanet” only 16 light years from here that is currently known only as Gliese 832c. As any real estate agent could tell you, it would attract a lot more attention if you renamed it “Nirvana”.

There are gazillions of stars, and only around 300 have proper names (Antares, Procyon, Sirius) in any language. Some of the other bright ones are named after the constellation they are in, with a Greek letter or a number to indicate which one they are (Alpha Centauri, 61 Cygni). But most are just a number in a star catalogue. Jerome Lalande’s, published in 1801, had 47,390 stars, Henry Draper’s, published in 1918, listed 225,300.

Gliese 832 was named in a list of 3,803 “nearby” stars (up to 72 light years away) first published by Wilhelm Gliese in 1957, and updated several times since. The “c” was added when Gliese 832 was discovered to have planets two months ago. All very sensible and orderly, but not very romantic. So the International Astronomical Union called in the consultants, and the result was (pause for trumpet flourish) a competition!!

The NameExoWorlds contest, announced last year, will give the global public an opportunity to give more exciting or at least more memorable names to about 300 planets circling other stars. Starting next month, a site will open on which astronomy clubs and other non-profit organisations can register with the IAU, and in October they will be asked to pick 25 or 30 of these planets for the first round of naming.

Starting in December, these clubs and organisations can propose names for the planets and their host stars (only one planet per group), and in March the general public can rank the proposals in an online vote. They’re expecting more than a million votes.

The winning names will be announced at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu a year from now — and Tatooine will certainly be one of the winners, provided that George Lucas gives his permission. (There might be a copyright issue.) But Vulcan will not be one of the names (sorry, Trekkies) because he was a Roman god, and names of religious figures aren’t allowed.

The IAU’s naming rules are the most interesting part of the exercise. Names may not be longer than 16 characters, they should only be one word, and they must be pronounceable in some known language (though not necessarily yours). They shouldn’t be rude, they must not be of a commercial nature, and the names of pets are not acceptable.

Most importantly, they cannot be the names of living individuals, nor the names of individuals, places or events principally known for political, military or religious activities. Which would have caused a lot of problems if the rule had already been in force during the last big round of naming places.

Imagine that the IAU’s rule had been in force in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when European sailors and settlers were sprinkling names on all the “new lands” in the Americas and Australasia. No New England, no Melbourne, and certainly no El Salvador. No Sao Paulo, no Los Angeles, and no Sydney.

The southernmost Australians dealt with the problem in 1856 by changing their island’s name from Van Diemen’s Land (he was a former governor of the Dutch East Indies) to Tasmania (Abel Tasman was simply an explorer, and safely dead by then). But New Zealand would not pass muster on the word count, and New South Wales is simply ridiculous.

Waterloo in Canada will have to go, as will Washington (both the city and the state) in the United States, and they’ll have to do something about Bolivia too. But the biggest problem will be what to do about the Americas: two entire continents called after an individual who was still alive when they were named.

Amerigo Vespucci, originally from Florence, moved to Spain in 1492 and subsequently became involved in organising various voyages of exploration to the “New World” for the kings of both Spain and Portugal. In 1507 he was credited by the German geographer Martin Waldseemuller with discovering that these lands were not part of Asia, as Columbus had originally believed, but a huge separate land-mass between Europe and Asia.

On his world map of that same year, therefore, Waldseemuller named that land-mass “America”, after the Latin version (Americus) of Vespucci’s first name. But Amerigo Vespucci was still alive — he didn’t die until 1512. The name caught on, as it happened, but Waldseemuller broke the IAU rules.

It’s never too late to fix a mistake, but what shall we call the place instead? I know. How about the continents of North Tatooine and South Tatooine? And, of course, the United States of Tatooine.

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