Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Caltech astronomer has a blog

I've been following Mike Brown's Planets, an astronomy blog started by Mike Brown who is an astronomer at Caltech. For those of you who don't know him, he is the dude whose discovery of Eris led to the demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a dwarf planet. Yup, Pluto fans, go ahead and send him your hate mails. In one of his entries, he talks about how astronomers give their new discoveries a name. From Mike Brown's Planets:
We take naming objects in the solar system very carefully. We’ve picked out the names for Quaoar (creation force of the Tongva tribe who live in Los Angeles), Orcus (the earlier Etruscan counterpart to Pluto, for an object that appears much like a twin of Pluto), Sedna (the Inuit goddess of the sea, for the coldest most distant Kuiper belt object at the time), and Eris (the greek goddess of discord and strife, for the object that finally led to the demotion of Pluto). Each of these names came after considerable thought and debate, and each of them fit some characteristic of the body that made us feel that it was appropriate.

Coming up with a new permanent name for Easterbunny was the hardest of all of these. Orcus and Sedna fit the character of the orbit of the body. Eris was so appropriate it is enough to make me almost start believing in astrology. Quaoar was, we felt, a nice tribute to the fact that all mythological deities are not Greek or Roman.

But what for Easterbuuny? It’s orbit is not particularly strange, but it is big. Probably about 2/3 the size of Pluto. And it is bright. It is the brightest object in the Kuiper belt other than Pluto itself. Unlike, say 2003 EL61, which has so many interesting characteristics that it was hard choosing from so many different appropriate name (more on this later), Easterbunny has no obvious hook. Its surface is covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, which is scientifically fascinating, but really not easily relatable to terrestrial mythology. (For a while I was working on coming up with a name related to the oracles at Delphi: some people interpret the reported trance-like state of the oracles to be related to natural gas [methane] seeping out of the earth there. After some thought I decided this theme was just dumb.) Strike one.

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