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Why Uwingu is a bad idea

 

What's Uwingu: a company whose stated goals are 1) to increase people's interest in Astronomy and 2) create a different way to fund research. I'm all for the former. As for the latter, what do they plan to do?

Sell the sky.

I kid you not. They are selling the sky. Full of the worst tricks of marketing to get your money. You nominate a planet for $4.99, and you vote on suggested names for $0.99 (don't you hate the .99 that stores put on all prices just to make you feel you're paying less?). You can even have bulk discounts. They will print you a certificate, which is supposed to give legitimacy and validity to the transaction.

I tried to ignore it when I heard of it. So did the IAU, I suppose. But it ended up getting to their nerves, and they have issued an In the light of recent events statement, that you can read in the link below.

IAU statement

The business practice of Uwingu is being hotly debated in the Astronomer's facebook page. Astronomers seem quite divided about it. I had my own squirmish with the IAU some years ago when I suggested a scheme for naming the planets. But this time around, I side 100% with the IAU. Uwingu combines two very bad ideas.

One is to give planets popular names, instead of names based on world mythology. Why not popular names? Simple. In general, they tend to be rather distasteful. Look at some asteroid names: Mrspock, Jamesbond, Tomhanks, Megryan. If the same happens for exoplanets, we will have a profusion of kids/pets/partners names. Do we want to see articles entitled "On the spin-orbit coupling of Fido" or "General circulation model of Jessica"? Not to mention that some time ago names such as Fourpiter, Twopiter and Dinky enjoyed some popularity. Are these the names we want to see given to exoplanets? Then look at the names suggested at Uwingu. RonPaul, MittRomney, NoMoreTaxes. Popular names tend to be really bad. For this reason, naming should be given to a committee that cares about nomenclature, precisely to avoid an abundance of such unpalatable names.

The committee that cares about nomeclature is of course the IAU. When I voiced my suggestion, the IAU took it seriously. They passed it to the whole committee, who considered the idea, thought about it, gave me feedback, but eventually rejected it. Some of the objections I didn't agree with (the system of car plate licenses is fine), some I think are sound (any naming system should be international). I started working on the corrections they suggested, but Kepler made me drop it. I suggested to name the planets based on the myth of the constellation where they are found. This scheme worked up to 2009, when the known exoplanets were found scattered pretty much all around. Kepler's massive output in a single patch of the sky rendered the scheme impractical, since the Kepler planets are all in two constellations (Lyra and Cygnus). I didn't think yet of a naming scheme that includes the Kepler planets.

The second bad idea of Uwingu is to charge for naming planets. A shady idea that borders the unethical. When the IAU press-release came out, Uwingu accused the IAU of arrogantly intending to "own" the Universe. Yet they are the ones trying to sell the sky. Haven't they read Le Petit Prince? Uwingu, not the IAU, more resembles the businessman who thought he owned the stars.

Moreover, the whole concept of funding research by private capital is a dangerous idea. I for one don't want to live in a world where research is funded by corporations. Uwingu is a slippery slope into the system reigning in pharmacology, where multi-millionary companies care more about the money they can make out of the drugs they develop than about saving the lives of people who need them. As Bill Gates himself said, if research is surrendered to the forces of market, male baldness gets more funding than malaria.

On the positive side, I think it's great that they got the debate reopened and now the IAU is considering again the possibility of naming the exoplanets. I'm all for the idea. The bad elements in Uwingu's proposal are the pay-for-play and the lack of a committee to regulate the naming. But the idea of crowdsourcing is not bad. The way I would do it would be: make it free, and in addition to the name, people would need to offer some reasoning as to why they think the name is sound. The website should clearly state that mythological names are preferred. There can be a popular vote for best names, but eventually the names should be submitted to the IAU for approval. That's the only way I can see this working.

And free, I insist. Science should be funded by voting responsibly, not by selling the sky we don't own.

Kind regards,
Wlad Lyra