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How to Name a Crater on Pluto

Jul 23, 2015
Ideas
Joel Stein writes a weekly column for TIME magazine. His book, Man Made: A Stupid Quest For Masculinity, changes people’s lives.

Society has a general rule that children cannot name things. Which is why it was dumb of my parents to let me--during a three-week period in second grade when I had a crush on a girl named Lisa DeFelice--name my sister. If she'd been born a few years later, her name would have been Mrs. Berkholtz Stein.

So I'm nervous that many of the newly discovered features on Pluto and its moons might be named after nerd entertainment such as Star Wars, Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, much of which was originally meant for kids. NASA is already calling Charon's north pole Mordor and a large dark spot on Pluto Balrog. We are in danger of naming Pluto's equator Everybody Poops.

To try to stop this, I called Mark Showalter, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute who aided in NASA's Pluto mission and set up an online poll months ago with all these nerd names. "I'm shooting for Vader Crater on Charon," the head of the nomenclature working group told me cheerily. This is when I discovered that SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It was going to be difficult to convince a man whose day job is looking for aliens that there is a difference between real and not real things.

But Showalter got my point, saying he'd made an effort to include Shakespearean characters, hoping to find twin peaks to name Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He's also using the names of gods and heroes from all over the world. This is because his names have to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, which likes cultural diversity and hates pop culture. It was comforting to know that astrophysicists have to deal with the same kind of editors that I do.

When I spoke to Showalter's editor, Rita Schulz, she told me that there are a lot of official rules about naming space stuff: Pluto's topography must refer to either the underworld, since Pluto was the Roman god of it, or scientists and writers who have written about Pluto, which is why I am writing this column. Charon is reserved for fictional explorers. What exactly Darth Vader explored, other than humans' capacity to sit through horrible prequels, is unclear.

Schulz assured me that many of the submitted names will be rejected by the 12-person naming committee she leads, which consists of scientists and historical scholars who are apparently way more conservative than the alien hunters NASA put in charge. Schulz told me they had a long discussion about whether John Lennon, who was a Beatle, would be famous enough in the future to be the namesake of a crater on Mercury, which is by far the crappiest of all planets. In fact, she's holding back all the good Mercury craters, which are named after artists, because "if in 200 years there is someone who is a much better painter than Rembrandt, he can't get a big crater, because all the big craters are taken." That seems as necessary as the idea of leaving an empty room in the Print Journalist Hall of Fame.

My only hope was to go to the source and get science-fiction writers to employ literary and historical references. I asked Kevin Murphy, a co-creator of Syfy's hit show Defiance, how he comes up with place names. "There's a desert called the Shipton desert named after a Canadian broadcasting executive who got in a bidding war because she wanted our show," he said. "The Darby building, which is what Julie Benz's character calls home base, is named after my cocker spaniel." The Syfy network is named after someone who cannot spell.

Murphy thought I was overestimating the power of names. Did I know what the streets I've lived on were named after? And naming animals was so unimportant that not only did God give Adam just one day to do it, but he approved of "tufted tit-tyrant."

The important part is the momentary excitement a name causes, like what the tufted tit-tyrant did for me. "When the Enterprise was a space shuttle, it made people feel warm and gushy because it was part of Star Trek," Murphy said. And the people who can get excited about Charon's craters are mostly Star Trek fans. So I'm willing to concede the names of our dwarf planet's moons' craters to them. In return, I'd love our movie theaters back.


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