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.


Several readers pointed out that the correct Polynesian pronunciation of Make-make is not Maki-maki, as I suggested, but rather MAH-kay MAH-kay (where the capitals show accent). These readers are, of course, correct.

I find this mistake distressing as I spend so much time in Hawaii at telescopes that I think myself a proper Hawaiian-pronunciater. I can glance up at a street sign and read ten syllables in appropriate Hawaiian while my wife is still sounding through the first letters.

Hawaiian is easy. The "e" is always pronounced "ay". I get a demonstration of this every time I visit the summit of Mauna Kea to use the Keck telescope. Or when I just stay in the town of Waimea, where the Keck headquarters are. Or make sacrifices to Pele before observing (which, well, I admit to sometimes doing; she allegedly likes hard alcohol these days rather than virgins, being in shorter suppy).

But the first time I saw the name Make-make the wrong pronunciation just flowed out so easily (influenced, no doubt, by the Wiki-wiki buses at the Honolulu airport [wiki-wiki, meaning something like "quick quick." The buses are not particulatly wiki-wike, though]) that I never paused to get it right.

Sorry Make-make. And thanks to those who set me straight.

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.