The adage that 'there is a sucker born every minute' has always been true. Organic food? Homeopathy? Social psychology?  I am cool with all of those unless poor people who think they are accepting science are being exploited for financial gain.

And so if a company claims they will name an asteroid after you for five bucks, or a star, and you don't want to do the creative design work of making your own certificate and printing it off, I suppose that's harmless enough, but if you ask I will still tell you how meaningless it is.

Recently, companies have asked the public to spend some money and do some voting to name planets too. The International Astronomical Union has decided enough is enough, you can't just declare yourself in charge of naming planets.

Or you can - "the IAU acts as a single arbiter of the naming process", they wrote in their statement. Well, who made them Mayor of New York City? If you are not familiar with them, you know their story at least; the IAU became a household name when 2% of astronomers caused a solar system acronym hubbub by declaring Pluto was not a planet - and then inventing a new definition of 'planet' so convoluted and arbitrary it made the old definition (the scientific rationale of which boiled down to 'these are the 9 planets in our solar system' and not much more) seem sane.  But their work led to this hilarious, though inaccurate, graphic:

Poor NASA. The IAU won't let them name planets but they still get the blame. 

Now the IAU is worried some pesky companies will come along and circumvent their authority and try to name the 400 billion stars or the 100 trillion planets out there. Oh wait, that is the number just in our Milky Way galaxy.  There are a whole lot more if you multiply that 100 trillion times the 500 billion galaxies we know must be there.  If a company were able to charge a dollar for naming just each planet in our galaxy, they could get rich - maybe they could even pay off California's government union debt.

It sounds fun, but while I bristle at unnecessary, self-important bureaucracies, the IAU is right. If you spend money on naming a planet, you are a sucker. You can still do it if you want, but you don't need to pay for the privilege. There is value to having a culturally-agnostic, internationally recognized convention for scientific names and that means you can't let people pay money or vote. We have a convention for zoology - though there is no self-appointed clearing house in biology, it just has to be printed in a journal - so we can do it for astronomy too.  But we also name a lot of planets before we can even confirm they are there, they could be just noise so it seems strange to argue about who can put a name on something that may not even be real.

If you're a docile science consumer and only want the names the elites at the IAU consider real, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia is the place to go.  But I am a little more independent. I just named a whole solar system after my wife and I printed it off and everything and I didn't need a company to help me at all.  If Neil Tyson wants to do something about it, he's just going to have to go through her.

And Bloggy: