Some Points Of Clarification

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A few points of clarification about my earlier post, in response to the large volume of responses I received:


"The IAU does not name planets" (by which, of course, I meant "exoplanets"):


1) Obviously, the IAU has the power to decide on official names an designations for celestial objects. My point is that it has never formally exercised its power for exoplanets, despite claiming in the press release that "Upon discovery, exoplanets and other astronomical objects receive unambiguous and official catalogue designations." The word "official" there is this highly misleading, because it suggests that the IAU has some role in giving planets designations.


2) The IAU has had a quasi-official list of planets and names as recently as 2006, when the Working Group on Exoplanets was dissolved. I pointed this out in my original post. This list was never adopted by the General Assembly, to my knowledge.


3) The IAU Working Group on Exoplanets (now Commission 53) unofficially blessed the practice of adding a lowercase letter starting with 'b' after a valid star name, increasing in order of planet discovery. It did not invent this scheme, nor did it ever enforce it when competing schemes or ambiguous cases appeared in the literature; the scheme arose organically amongst the early planet hunters and is applied inconsistently (for instance, HD 10180 b, GJ 581 g, the mu Arae system).


4) I would be fine with the IAU resolving naming disputes of planets, like those in the mu Arae system, for instance. This would require, at a minimum, a vote from Commission 53, as I understand things. I'm not calling on them to do this, though; bureaucracies are slow, and it's probably unnecessary because these cases are not so common that I can't keep track of them.  So far.


5) I don't think there is a global conspiracy going on here; I think that in its haste to condemn Uwingu the IAU misstated its role in naming planets. I suspect that most of this was just sloppiness, and instead of using the term "official" the IAU should have simply referred to the convention that astronomers usually follow. I think they unnecessarily implied that the IAU has been involved in planet nomenclature to give themselves greater rhetorical authority on the subject in order to bash Uwingu.


"The IAU press release cannot represent IAU policy":


6) My original use of the phrase "rogue press agent" improperly implied that I believed the press agent acted without the authority of the IAU General Secretary or the Commission President. I did not mean to imply that or to insult Mr. Christensen, and I apologize. "Rogue" referred to the fact the assertions in the press release did not reflect any vote by the relevant committee or by the General Assembly. I have edited the post.


7) My issue was not with the IAU pointing to exoplanet.eu as an example of how astronomers give names to exoplanets, which is fine, of course. Indeed, it was Jean Schneider's hard work on exoplanet.eu that led the Working Group to abandon its efforts at keeping its own list. My issue is with the IAU stating that the names and planets on that list have "officially assigned catalog designations", which is false. There is nothing "official" about those names. Indeed that list differs from mine because of differing standards for calling something a planet and differing applications of the unofficial convention for nomenclature.


Commission 53 is charged with resolving these issues, but has not done so yet, so the endorsement of that list without a vote is premature and inappropriate.


Uwingu:


8) I have no role in Uwingu and have not contributed to their organization. I applaud their overall goals, I respect its board and team, and I am sure they are not running a "scam." I take no position on the wisdom of their planet naming contest because I don't have strong opinion about it.


9) I pointed out in my post that Uwingu should make it clearer to casual readers of their website that their names would not necessarily be IAU sanctioned. I think the Uwingu team and board thinks this is already clear, and I think they did not intend to suggest otherwise.


10) Many people wanted to know if I would use the names that win votes at Uwingu. My answer: not unless they appeared as useful designations in the peer-reviewed literature, and even then I would prefer IAU sanction. I note Uwingu is clear that it is proposing "popular" names for exoplanets, which astronomers often use in press releases but very rarely in peer-reviewed papers.



2 Comments

Nice post, Jason.

Regarding point 3) — this isn't to disagree with anything you wrote, but just a comment: I think the TrES planets don't have 'b' appended. TrES-2 is the planet, not the star.

Indeed, the list of violations is long. Two more:
- ET-1 has no 'b'.
- The Exoplanet Archive and exoplanet.eu list "Ross 458(AB) c", but there is no "b" component (Ross 458 B IS the 'b' component?!)

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