Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Brief History Of Astronomical Naming Conventions

A while back we looked at nomenclature and aside from being a really fun word to say, it's incredibly important in the sciences. Given that the scientific community is multicultural, multinational, and above all, multilingual, being able to easily identify things from their names makes incredibly complicated scientific fields a little more manageable.

We've already looked at naming conventions in general, the naming conventions in medicine, and the etymology of the solar system. Unless you still believe that the Earth is the centre of the universe and there is nothing in the vast beyond, you should realise that there are billions of things that need a label.

In modern-day science, the observable universe, unsurprisingly the universe we can observe, is estimated at 93 billion light-years across. Just to clarify, a light-year is the distance covered by light in one year. It takes light only a few seconds to get to the moon and back, and around 8 minutes to reach us from the sun. These figures should give you some idea of how depressingly small and insignificant our planet is.

An infrared image of the Milky Way galaxy.
In the past, the "observable" universe was fairly small and a nomenclature wasn't really necessary. Ancient civilisations often considered these celestial bodies to be gods and it was fairly common for the planets, stars, and anything else they could see, to be named as a god.

Stars that don't have a catalogued name are usually designated using Arabic, as this was the prominent language of early astronomers and the ancient pioneers of the field.

Thanks to advances in technology, the amount of objects we can observe, and therefore need to be named and identified, has increased astronomically (pardon the pun), leaving a nomenclature as the only logical choice.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) regulates this naming convention and provides guidelines for naming newly-discovered objects. Unlike medicine, the system for naming planets and stars is more of a cataloguing system rather than attempting to come up with a system that could account for literally billions of objects.

Thanks to the naming conventions regulated by the IAU, astronomers needn't worry about coming up with clever or redundant names for stars, galaxies, planets, meteors, or asteroids. They can get on with their real jobs, studying them.