Lessons from Ants to Stars: An Egalitarian Scientific World, One Name at a Time

After students on an expedition in the Peruvian Andes discovered a new species of bird, beautiful with startlingly bright colors, they assigned it the Latin name of Capito fitzpatricki, after the Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick.

capito citizen science

photo: Michael Harvey

That’s how it works: those who discover the species have the privilege of choosing the species name. Most people select a name to honor someone. Even those lengthy Latin names can be popular. For example, when Jason Bond discovered several new species of trapdoor spider, he gave them Latin celebrity names like Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, Aptostichus stephencolberti, and Aptostichus angelinajolieae.

Whether its millions of species on Earth or billions and billions of objects in the sky, keeping orderly accounting is essential, meticulous work. Most importantly, it requires strictly adhering to the accepted conventions for naming. Nevertheless, in any discipline, there seems an inevitable need for two parallel systems: a formal naming system used by professionals and common names used by everyone else. While formal names are designated by an authority, popular names are, by definition, decided by majority rules.

Image ©Alex Wild, used by permission

Image ©Alex Wild, used by permission

Citizen science focuses on public access and participation in all facets of the scientific method for inquiry, exploration, and discovery. An excellent example of naming that is in keeping with citizen science philosophy is a contest held by Your Wild Life. The purpose of the contest is to find a common name for a very ordinary ant. The ant has only been known by its Latin name, Forelius pruinosus. Contest entries have already been accepted and the voting period to select the best entry is open until April 30: Vote now!

Sometimes nomenclatures can become complicated and even contentious.

Take Astronomy. A little brouhaha arose when the organization Uwingu (that’s Swahili for sky) began crowd-funding through contests to create a list of popular names for planets. Uwingu is planning ahead because the list is for recently discovered and un-named planets as well as those yet-to-be discovered.

The contest began with nominations for a common name for a planet indexed as Alpha Centauri Bb. Xavier Dumusque, who discovered Alpha Centauri Bb, likes the contest to find a name for popular usage that can exist alongside the technical name.

Why is the technical name Alpha Centauri Bb?

position of Alpha Centauri by Zwergelstern, wiki commons

position of Alpha Centauri
by Zwergelstern, wiki commons

If an object in the sky is bright enough to have been visible to ancient Greeks and Romans, then it was likely part of a constellation, in this case the constellation Centaurus.  In the late 1500s and early 1600s, Johann Bayer created a star atlas, assigning Greek letters to stars in each constellation, hence the brightest star in Centaurus became Alpha Centauri.

Later astronomers discovered that alpha Centauri was not one star, but three, and so the star system is called Alpha Centauri, and the stars within it are Alpha Centauri A, B, and C. When planets are discovered around stars, the norm is to call them by the name of the star plus a lowercase letter, starting with b. Thus, the planet orbiting the B star in the Alpha Centauri ABC system is called Alpha Centauri Bb.

The naming conventions of the Bayer atlas of about 1,500 stars is just the tip of the iceberg. Around the same time, John Flamsteed catalogued over 3,000 stars, with different designation numbers than Bayer. As astronomical instruments have improved, more and more objects in the sky have been found. Created 120 years ago, the Harvard Revised catalog (now the Yale Bright Star catalog) assigned HR-index numbers to the brightest 8,000 objects in the sky. The Henry Draper catalog, HD-index numbers, contains 250,000 objects (including the HR stars). Thus, a single bright object may be referred to by its Bayer, Flamsteed, HR, or HD name, and the SIMBAD online reference helps astronomers keep track. NED (NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database) does the same for galaxies.

The jargon and designations are almost as infinite as the Universe.

Let’s not forget asteroids and comets, usually discovered by amateur astronomers and given popular names after the discoverer (with the prefix P for periodicals, like P/Halley) and assigned serial numbers.

It isn’t surprising that objects have multiple names. Astronomy has a long history, and objects in the sky are observed and discovered independently at multiple wavelengths (optical, radio, infrared). Even if astronomers were not dealing with the discovery of more and more objects, there would probably be a wellspring of sentiment for better naming conventions and nomenclature.

Maybe that sore point is why, after the opening of the Uwingu contest, the International Astronomical Union felt the need to issue statements asserting their authority in naming exoplanets planets (planets orbiting other stars than the Sun).How open is the International Astronomical Union to public input on common names? They are not particularly anxious to embark on such an endeavor. They made it clear that entries in the Uwingu contest will have no bearing on their decisions.

Alan Stern and Geoff Marcy, planetary astronomers instrumental in Uwingu, estimate that the Milky Way may host 160 billion planets. Do astronomers even have enough time to name them all? Aligned with the aims of citizen science, Uwingu’s push for decision-making that is egalitarian rather than elite is a worthy goal.

The International Astronomical Union says, “Any naming system is a scientific issue that must also work across different languages and cultures in order to support collaborative worldwide research and avoid confusion.”  An appropriate sentiment.

Jupiter, Io and Ganymede by DUCKofD3ATH on Flickr

Jupiter, Io and Ganymede
by DUCKofD3ATH on Flickr

But it may be without basis. Uranus, for example, has 27 moons and 26 of them were named after characters in Shakespeare plays. Naming along themes is common. The moons of Jupiter are named after consorts of Zeus (the Greek version of Jupiter), such as the females (Callisto, Io, and Europa) and the male (Ganymede).

Finally, consider the naming of nebulae, which are clouds of glowing dust and gas. They have multiple names too. Nebulae have an index number, but astronomers will also name them based on their shape because a descriptive and catchy name is easier to remember.

Fried Egg Nebula photo: E. Lagadec

Fried Egg Nebula
photo: E. Lagadec

When Eric Lagadec sent a press release about the Fried Egg Nebula, the media ran headlines like “Fried Egg Nebula Cracks Open Rare Hypergiant Star” and “Astronomers Crack the Fried Egg Nebula.” Would the public have heard of the discovery of this yellow hypergiant, an old star before it explodes as a supernova, were it called only by its official name, IRAS 17163-3907?

Citizen science, from crowd-sourcing to crowd-funding, challenges authoritative structures in the culture and norms of scientific practice.

Astronomy has a vibrant community of amateurs as well as general public participation in finding new planets and Galaxies. The underlying premise of citizen science is not free labor, but to provide genuine public access to the scientific enterprise. The old naming structures should share space for public involvement in deciding common names. Naming is a creative part of science and involving the public ensures that discoveries are celebrated and talked about not just at seminars, but during recess, family dinners, and coffee breaks.


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