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A Victorian Scandal

A recent event reminded me of a scandal of a sort that happened around 1850. At the center of it was John Russell Hind, a British astronomer (I mentioned him in a previous blog about archives).

Hind was a superb observer who knew the sky very well. He discovered many interesting objects outside the solar system, but his main passion was the discovery of asteroids. He ended up discovering 10 of the first 30 asteroids known, which is quite a feat considering how hot this field was at the time. As the discoverer, he got to name these asteroids. At the time, asteroid names were picked from mythology – such as Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta, the names of the first 4 asteroids known.

Hind named the first two asteroids he discovered (nos. 7 and 8 overall) Iris and Flora. These sound more like old-fashioned women’s names to me, but they certainly are names from classical mythology, and so they passed without comments. Hind then picked the name “Victoria” for one of his later discoveries.

There was a reaction to this choice: “we are not amused” would be one way to put it. “You can’t name an asteroid after *your* queen,” would be another. Hind claimed, however, that he took the name from Roman mythology, in which Victoria is the goddess of victory. It was pure coincidence, according to him, that his sovereign, the Queen of the British Empire, was also called Victoria.

This composite image shows the comparative sizes of eight asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JAXA/ESA

Fast forward 160 years or so. Recently, there was an internet poll to pick the names of a couple of small moons of Pluto. The clear winner: Vulcan. Some people said “you can’t name a moon of Pluto after a Star Trek planet.” (Sounds familiar?) Others countered
“but Vulcan is the god of fire in Roman mythology.” (Sounds familiar?) Some things never change, or so it seems, including the name of the asteroid no. 12 – still called Victoria, despite the initial objections.

So, the Star Trek connection probably will not disqualify the proposed name, Vulcan. Still, I’m not a big fan of this pick – wouldn’t you rather name a much hotter world after the god of fire, like one of the “hot Jupiters”?

Right now, exoplanets have relatively boring names – designated with lower case “b”, “c” etc. after the name of the parent star. Things could get very interesting, if astronomers ever decide to give them proper names.

Pluto and moons
Pluto and its moons, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Frattare (STScI)

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