A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.



What's in a name? [part 2]

While a rose by any other name would surely smell as sweet, the Kuiper belt object/dwarf planet/Plutoid formerly known mostly as 2005 FY9 now smells a good bit sweeter to me after the International Astronomical Union has finally accepted our six month old proposal to give the object a proper name. The official citation reads:
Makemake, discovered 2005 Mar 31 by M.E. Brown, C.A. Trujillo, and
D.Rabinowitz at Palomar Observatory

Makemake is the creator of humanity and the god of fertility in the mythology of the South Pacific island of Rapa Nui. He was the chief god of the Tangata manu bird-man cult and was worshipped in the form of sea birds, which were his incarnation. His material symbol, a man with a bird's head, can be found carved in petroglyphs on the island.
Makemake, being of Polynesian descent, is pronounced Hawaiian-style (or at least what I think of as Hawaiian style), as “Maki-maki.”
Three years is a long time to have only a license plate number instead of a name, so for most of the time, we simply refered to this object as “Easterbunny” in honor of the fact that it was discovered just a few days past Easter in 2005. Three years is such a long time that I think I’m going to have a hard time calling Makemake by its real name. For three years we’ve been tracking it in the sky, observing it with telescopes on the ground and in space, writing proposals to observe it more, writing papers based on what we see, and, all the while, we have just called it – at least amongst ourselves – Easterbunny. If you came in tomorrow and told me that from now on my daughter – who also just turned three – was to suddenly be called something new, I would have a hard time with that, too.
Nonetheless, I’ve been waiting for Makemake to get a name for a long time, so I’m going to walk in to my regular Monday morning research group meeting tomorrow, pour a cup of coffee, and casually tell me students that I am working on a paper on the detection of ethylene ice on Makemake. My students, who will probably not yet have heard the word that the name is out, will look at me a little blankly, shake their heads, and proceed to ignore me, as they often do when I say things that make no sense (which, they would claim, happens weekly in these meetings). But then I’ll tell them: 2005 FY9, Easterbunny, K50331A (the very first name automatically assigned by my computer once I clicked the button indicating that I had found it; 5=2005, 03=March 31=date A=first object I found), will henceforth be know solely as Makemake, the chief god of the small Pacific island of Rapa Nui.
We take naming objects in the solar system very carefully. We’ve picked out the names for Quaoar (creation force of the Tongva tribe who live in Los Angeles), Orcus (the earlier Etruscan counterpart to Pluto, for an object that appears much like a twin of Pluto), Sedna (the Inuit goddess of the sea, for the coldest most distant Kuiper belt object at the time), and Eris (the greek goddess of discord and strife, for the object that finally led to the demotion of Pluto). Each of these names came after considerable thought and debate, and each of them fit some characteristic of the body that made us feel that it was appropriate.
Coming up with a new permanent name for Easterbunny was the hardest of all of these. Orcus and Sedna fit the character of the orbit of the body. Eris was so appropriate it is enough to make me almost start believing in astrology. Quaoar was, we felt, a nice tribute to the fact that all mythological deities are not Greek or Roman.
But what for Easterbuuny? It’s orbit is not particularly strange, but it is big. Probably about 2/3 the size of Pluto. And it is bright. It is the brightest object in the Kuiper belt other than Pluto itself. Unlike, say 2003 EL61, which has so many interesting characteristics that it was hard choosing from so many different appropriate name (more on this later), Easterbunny has no obvious hook. Its surface is covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, which is scientifically fascinating, but really not easily relatable to terrestrial mythology. (For a while I was working on coming up with a name related to the oracles at Delphi: some people interpret the reported trance-like state of the oracles to be related to natural gas [methane] seeping out of the earth there. After some thought I decided this theme was just dumb.) Strike one.
I spent some time considering Easter and equinox related myths, as a tribute to the time of discovery. I was quite excited to learn about the pagan Eostre (or Oestre or Oster or many other names) after whom Easter is named, until I later realized that this mythology is perhaps mythological, and, more importantly, that an asteroid had already been named after this goddess hundreds of years ago. Strike two.
Finally I considered Rabbit gods, of which there are many. Native American lore is full of hares, but they usually have names such as “Hare” or, better, “Big Rabbit”. I spent a while considering “Manabozho” an Algonquin rabbit trickster god, but I must admit, perhaps superficially, that the “Bozo” part at the end didn’t appeal to me. There are many other rabbit gods, but the names just didn’t speak to me. Strike three.
I gave up for about a year. It didn’t matter anyway, as the IAU was not yet in a position to act, and I was still waiting for them to decide on a proposal for 2003 EL61 which I had made 18 months ago (again, more later).
This Christmas, though, it was suggested to me that there were rumblings within the IAU that perhaps they would just chose a name themselves and not worry about what the discoverers thought. One could say that this should not matter and I should not care; there is no science there, after all, but, I enjoy, take seriously, and spend way too much time on this giving of names. I was not interested in a committee telling me the name of something I had discovered. So I went back to work.
Suddenly, it dawned on me: the island of Rapa Nui. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I wasn’t familiar with the mythology of the island so I had to look it up, and I found Make-make, the chief god, the creator of humanity, and the god of fertility. I am partial to fertility gods for things I discovered around that time. Eris, Makemake, and 2003 EL61 were all discovered as my wife was 3-6 months pregnant with our daughter. Makemake was the last of these discoveries. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe. Makemake was part of that.
Oh, and Rapa Nui? It was first visited by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722, precisely 283 years before the discovery of the Kuiper belt object now known as Makemake. Because of this first visit, the island is known in Spanish (it is a territory of Chile) as Isla de Pascua, but, around here, it is better known by its English name of Easter Island.

31 comments:

  1. "...Eris (the greek goddess of discord and strife, for the object that finally led to the demotion of Pluto)."

    The name Eris will likely stand but the strife is not over, and the demotion of Pluto will not stand.

    "It didn’t matter anyway, as the IAU was not yet in a position to act...

    The IAU is not in any position to act after its latest series of debacles. The "plutoid" definition is considered a joke by many astronomers and was made by a tiny committee of about ten people. I understand even you weren't informed in advance. It seems the IAU is a very undemocratic secretive organization that needs to either reform its decision making processes or be replaced with another group that is more open and transparent.

    "I was not interested in a committee telling me the name of something I had discovered."

    Many people, both astronomers and lay people, are not interested in an organization that does not allow electronic voting and lets four percent of its members hijack a vote and make decisions not for the whole group but for the whole world.

    Being in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium, Makemake is a planet of the dwarf planet subcategory. Congratulations on choosing the name. Now choose a planet definition that actually make sense instead of linguistic nonsense stating that a dwarf planet is not a planet at all.

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  2. The pronunciation of the Easter Island god is probably more like makay-makay, since Polynesian languages are usually written phonetically (/e/ is what we in English think of as the long-A sound).

    Just curious if there are any other largish TNOs you've discovered but haven't announced to the world at large? Not that I want you to release any details you don't want to, just want to know if we have more discoveries to look forward to.

    Also, when are they going to approve the names of the other largish TNOs you've discovered. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of these alphanumeric designations.

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  3. The Easter Island pronounciation of Make-make is clearly like "makay-makay", because the polynesian languages like Hawaiian, Samoan, Maori, Easter Islandish (Rapanui), etc. are all transcribed phonetically and the vowels have essentially the same pronounciation as in Italian or Spanish. To read "e" as "ee" (Italian "i") in foreign words is a typical English misreading.

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  4. Make-Make's creation myth can be found at Google Book Search

    Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island
    By Steven Roger Fischer

    from skimming this book...
    Makemake was a bird diety who carried an egg (fertility sign)
    The Birdman was a representative/mediary between the people and Makemake. (a rough Holy Spirit parallel)
    (12-month leadership role determined by sports competition)

    The Birdman Cult eventually turned to cannibalism of women and children due to ecological disaster, civil war between clans, and revenge.

    How Makemake became a big deity: p56 http://tinyurl.com/6kr45k

    The most primative view of Makemake's story: p13 http://tinyurl.com/59cufb (maybe you want to skip this if you're easily offended)

    http://www.netaxs.com/~trance/rongo.html Steven Fischer on deciphering island heiroglyphics (seemingly almost all procreation chants)

    ---------------

    Dear Mr Brown :
    Lila I, Lila II ... maybe something else Middle Eastern as a peace offering?
    I don't think the Greeks or Romans only used Wikipedia to research names.
    Thank you very much.
    Kaden

    PS -- I'll be in touch about getting an accurate birth time for your natal chart. I can tell you now your Venus is Out-of-Bounds. : )

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  5. Congratulations on Makemake! That's a good choice and a great story.

    I know what you mean about Easterbunny, though... sorry to say it, but Eris will always be Xena to me.

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  6. One could argue the apparent arrogance of a "special" group of humans assigning themselves the right to name a celestial body. I think you should know that I have chosen a different name for this object. The object's true name is "Bob". Now get over yourselves.
    JB

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  7. Glad to see "FY 9" getting a name - the three year wait has inspired me to draw a cartoon depicting it's un-named status which can be seen here if anyone's interested - I may need to draw the sequal now that its named Makemake :)

    Can't wait to see EL 61 join the party.

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  8. Hi Jonathan;
    I think your cartoon was great. I would love to see a continuation.
    -- Kevin Heider

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  9. Bad name. I'd recomment to stick with Greco-Roman mythology at least for the largest ones.

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  10. Michael McClellanJuly 16, 2008 at 5:17 PM

    "Makemake" makes me giggle every time I say it, but I do like having another "official" dwarf planet out there. And, unlike laurel kornfield, I approve of the dwarf planet designation. What I think the IAU should do is make "planemo" an official term, using it to describe any body that has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium, whether or not it has cleared it's neighborhood, and whether or not it's a satellite of another planemo.

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  11. My problem is not with the dwarf planet designation but with the IAU definition that states dwarf planets are not planets at all.

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  12. Prof Brown,
    I am very much against your naming policies. In my opinion the names a sane civilization would naturally use would be -in our case- purely Anglo Saxon names. The Greeks didn't use foreign names.
    Every culture-race-civilization who values itself and wishes to live, manifests this natural and sane will too by using names that reflect their vital primary force. When they don't, these civilizations and races disappear rather quickly.
    I am truly appalled with your naming this body "Makemake" to honor a "god". (Just as offended as I am with Obama's suggestion that our children should learn Spanish).
    Think for a minute how much better it would be if you had named it "Cranbrook" or "Exeter" or "Riesengebirge" for example.
    What a shame to see that even Astronomers are brainwashed today !

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  13. Michael McClellanJuly 17, 2008 at 8:01 AM

    Pardon? Someone's got jingo. Remember that Makemake is not just for the english-speaking portion of the world, but for the entire world. Therefore a name taken from a mythology different from our own is perfectly fine. As for "honoring" a "god," the names for planets and dwarf planets have always been taken from mythology. Would you rather us name them after dead politicians? Planet Georgewashington, for instance?

    And in response to laurel, I partially agree with that. That's why I'd like the term planemo to be officially adopted and used to describe anything with hydrostatic equilibrium.

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  14. Why not call it Reebok, and make a little money out of it?

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  15. Has it been really "upgraded" to dwarf planet, is it really "round" (in hydostatic equilibrium)? Wikpedia says yes (based on some US reference site), the IAU says nothing (or I could not find anything on 2005 FY9 dated after 2006)... I am confused.

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  16. On July 19th, 2008, The IAU officially declared it as a Dwarf Planet.
    -- Kevin Heider

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  17. Very much thank you, Kevin. I was confuse about it.

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  18. Maju;
    Looking at the largest moons in the solar system, Makemake may be similar to Titania.
    -- Kevin Heider

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  19. Esteemed Mr. Brown,

    My name is Bruno R. Medeiro, I am teacher of Portuguese grammar, Literature and Mythologies in my country, Brazil. In spite of my literary formation, I'm an impassioned by the Astronomy, and have been accompanying the progress of your discoveries and the originality of your intelligence when choosing the names for the dwarf planets. Yesterday I became aware on the chosen name for 2005 FY09. A friend told me the innovation and I ended for to dash in your "Blog" and to read your excellent history of as he found the perfect name for "Easterbunny".
    Exactly for taking knowledge of your history it was that wanted to enter in contact with you to talk about new and possible names for the other dwarf planets. I would be happy of contributing with my knowledge of mythologies and more knowledge on the astronomical characteristics of those new planets. It would be happy that could feel the opportunity to say and to suggest, since, the astronomy allowed that Venetia Burney when she, still, was a simple and delicate child.
    I had a lot of fun when you said that Éris almost made to believe in astrology. I have to harmonize that dwarf planet really disturbed the solar system! Your choice for the name was ingenious and really astrological. (laughters)
    My e-mail for contacts is: rodericpop@pop.com.br will be waiting for your answer as soon as is possible. After all, you should be a quite busy man. I await hopeful, because I could see in your blog that you are somebody of intelligence and simplicity enchanters.

    P.S.: Forgive my English, I am not still a Charles Dickens or Henry James.

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  20. Esteemed Mr. Brown,

    My name is Bruno R. Medeiro, I am teacher of Portuguese grammar, Literature and Mythologies in my country, Brazil. In spite of my literary formation, I'm an impassioned by the Astronomy, and have been accompanying the progress of your discoveries and the originality of your intelligence when choosing the names for the dwarf planets. Yesterday I became aware on the chosen name for 2005 FY09. A friend told me the innovation and I ended for to dash in your "Blog" and to read your excellent history of as he found the perfect name for "Easterbunny".
    Exactly for taking knowledge of your history it was that wanted to enter in contact with you to talk about new and possible names for the other dwarf planets. I would be happy of contributing with my knowledge of mythologies and more knowledge on the astronomical characteristics of those new planets. It would be happy that could feel the opportunity to say and to suggest, since, the astronomy allowed that Venetia Burney when she, still, was a simple and delicate child.
    I had a lot of fun when you said that Éris almost made to believe in astrology. I have to harmonize that dwarf planet really disturbed the solar system! Your choice for the name was ingenious and really astrological. (laughters)
    My e-mail for contacts is: rodericpop@pop.com.br will be waiting for your answer as soon as is possible. After all, you should be a quite busy man. I await hopeful, because I could see in your blog that you are somebody of intelligence and simplicity enchanters.

    P.S.: Forgive my English, I am not still a Charles Dickens or Henry James.

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  21. What a hassle you went through with that naming business, looking for a creator deity from ancient mythology that has some connection with Easter... why didn't you just call it "Jesus" and have done with it?

    That would have given an interesting twist to the claim of the faithful that Jesus is in heaven, looking down upon us.

    "Yes he is, covered in ice!"

    Though I grant you, he's not much of a fertility god, is he? ;-)

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  22. They can't be dwarfs. I see no battle axes

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  23. Call me a romantic, but I sincerely hope that one day, when the next object found is named, they pay some homage to the late, great Douglas Adams and name it Rupert.

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  24. Very close to the same time, Mr. Brown had his way with our latest planet's name, I discovered something myself. This discovery is called "makemake" due to the fact that two letters "make" up a new word.

    I hereby officially give credit to Mr. Brown for his timing. Without it, I would still be calling it "government code". Makemake is much more fun to say, and it's easy to talk about. Thank you so much Mr. Brown. :)

    Here's an example:

    Suddenly, it dawned on me: the island of Rapa Nui.

    In this case I would strip the letters I and S off. Normally, IS means prison, but in this case, sense they are in reverse, it may mean not in prison. That's confusing, right? Let me just put the rest in brackets.




    Why hadn’t I thought of this before[we]? I wasn’t familiar with the mythology of the island so I had to look it up, and I found Make-make, the chief god, the creator of humanity, and the god of fertility[iy=i hate u]. I am partial to fertility gods for things I discovered around that time[ie=for example]. Eris, Makemake, and 2003 EL61 were all discovered as my wife was 3-6 months pregnant with our daughter[emergency room], in a Washington Post blog, I mistakenly thought Mr. Brown had twins on the way.

    Makemake was the last of these discoveries[postal code, MS]. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe[for example]. Makemake was part of that[it would make me think of my brother Matt].

    Thank you very much sir for picking a great name. :)

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  25. I apologize for not editing my submission.

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  26. Whilst I cannot possibly allow the fanatical assertion that only Anglo-Saxon deities represent a 'sane' (ah, the irony....) choice in the naming of planet type phenonema, I must concede that it would be nice to see a shard of local mythology take root in the big black beyond.
    I am a staunch multi-culturalist but consider that this position requires one to periodically stoke the fires of ones own native customs in the very midst of sustainedly fanning flames from without. After all, if nobody ever did this, we would presumably end up with less and less cultures to get multi about.
    As an anglicised welshman, I would be noticably uplifted to see anything from under the handsome umbrella of 'British myth and legend' employed in the noble art of cosmic rock labelling.
    I do approve of the names used so far, and greatly enjoy the cleverly quirky rationales, but must finally sentimentally submit that there's no place like home...............................kindly bear me in mind.

    Toodle-pip/hwyl.

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  27. Thank you, Mike Brown! As a third grader trying to create materials to lead my students in the latest known solar system facts, I keep finding your blog and putting a human face on all these far-off discoveries. From your blog of disappointment when news of Pluto's demotion overshadowed Eris's rise to "dwarfdom" to the tale of Easterbunny's name change, your personal accounts have shown me (and my students) how recording good science is a lot more than listing numbers and creating graphs. These discoveries happen while life is happening, and scientists are dads, moms, ... REAL people. Please keep it coming! We can't wait to see what you share next!

    So grateful,
    Ms. Williams
    Texas

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  28. oops... that's "third grade teacher who needs to edit more carefully from now on."

    Mrs. Williams
    Texas

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    ReplyDelete
  30. I personally don't like the name Makemake despite it's origins. I'm sure there were plenty of other names that could have been considered that didn't make a mockery of astronomy. Anything repetitive is inappropriate. Kids have to learn this stuff and it seems ludicrous that such a ridiculous name could be given to something that will outlive all of us. One hates to think what future generations will think of such an infantile name. I'm all for multi-cultural inclusion but not when chosen names make a mockery of science and language - you have basically inflicted this ridiculous name on humanity for all time. One can only pray you don't discover anything else.

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  31. MakeMake.... And others are amazing!! I love the discovery, but still Miss Pluto. =)

    I see there are a few people that can't respect the discovery and /or name, but decide to take their closed minds and find something negative in something as amazing as someone discovering another "Planet" in OUR universe.
    I say - Congratulations!!!!!

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