Michael Hanlon

Science & Nature SpecialAstronomy

PC goes planetary

One way to throw an astrologer into confusion – well, even more confusion than that under which they normally labour – is to find a new planet. When Clyde Tombaugh spotted Pluto in 1930, the third oldest profession found itself in a tizzy. So when a tenth planet, beyond Pluto, was announced a few months ago, the astrologers again let out a collective groan and started redrawing their charts. But it isn’t just the stargazing charlatans who were bothered by the new discovery; the rest of us were just as bemused, not by the planet itself but by its name.

Quaoar. Qua-oh-what? Hard to spell, harder to say. The only person I know who can pronounce Quaoar properly is a small boy who had to present a talk on the thing to his classmates. Which is a shame, because although Quaoar is by all accounts a miserable piece of cosmic real estate, made essentially of snow and so cold that nothing moves and nothing stirs, as only the tenth planet ever discovered in our solar system it surely deserves an exciting name.

But snappy names, it seems, are in short supply. Fashion, political correctness, national pride and sheer whimsy have already been reflected in the skies. And, with huge new telescopes coming into service and new discoveries seemingly being made every week, the biggest problem of all is upon us – we are starting to run out of names altogether.

In the old days, it was all so simple. The ancients could see only a few thousand objects in the sky. To the Egyptians, Ra, the Sun, was the sun god. The Greeks named the planets, the wandering stars, after their gods, the names later being romanised into the familiar words we know today: Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the rest. The advent of the telescopic age in the 17th century sparked a naming frenzy for the heavens.

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