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Something strange going on in the IAU


Prof. Jason Wright has the story over at his blog. If you care about the actions of the IAU---in particular a potential abuse of procedure---please read the post in full and pass it along.

It all starts with a company called Uwingo that wants to sell the ability to propose exoplanet names (think of an exoplanet baby name book) in order to raise funding for exoplanetary science. As stated on the Uwingo site, "We’re asking the public to create a vast list of planet names for astronomers to choose from."

In a recent press release, the IAU responds:
In the light of recent events, where the possibility of buying the rights to name exoplanets has been advertised, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) wishes to inform the public that such schemes have no bearing on the official naming process. The IAU wholeheartedly welcomes the public’s interest to be involved in recent discoveries, but would like to strongly stress the importance of having a unified naming procedure.
Interestingly, they do not name Uwingo specifically, but passive-agressively link to a star-naming site, most of which are clearly schemes meant to fool the public. Uwingo, by contrats, is run by astronomers and makes its intentions very clear.

Jason writes:
The IAU has issued a statement regarding the naming of planets by a group called Uwingu that is misleading or inaccurate in several ways.  Reading it, one could be forgiven for coming away believing that the IAU has given official names to planets, that these names can be found at exoplanet.eu, and that the commission responsible for this process has refused to consider Uwingu's names.  All three implications are absolutely false.  
He goes on to list the problems with this statement
1) Contrary to the press release's implication, the IAU does not name planets.
2) Contrary to the press releases's assertion, there is no "official naming process."
3) Contrary to the press release's assertion, Commission 53 has not foreclosed the possibility of using Uwingu's names.
4) Contrary to the press release's implication, the press release does not and cannot describe official IAU policy.
5) Contrary to the press release's implication, Uwingu is not actually promising to give official names to or to sell naming rights to specific planets
Like I said, check out his full post for all of the details and implications. This is really strange...

What is also troubling is the "official" endorsement of one exoplanets site (exoplanet.eu) over another (exoplanets.org) apparently without consultation of the community, nor the IAU Commission 53 on Exoplanets. As Geoff Marcy wrote in an email:
The lack of consultation or vote by IAU members is particularly eyebrow-raising, as the two IAU co-signatories of the press-release reside in Paris, and the press release names exoplanets.eu as the catalog for exoplanets which comes from Observatoire de Paris.   At the least, this coincidence of two authorities in Paris promoting a website in Pairs raises the appearance, if not reality, of political back-room motivations.   Further, exoplanets.eu contains exoplanets not vetted by the IAU nor even published in many cases!
Stay tuned!

Comments

Hogg said…
The site - uwingu.com - is a for-profit company that does no specified scientific activity and is endorsed explicitly by Pamela Gay and Geoff Marcy. I hope Pamela and Geoff and Uwingu will explain what their mission is. I agree that the IAU had no right to issue that statement, but Uwingu looks pretty suspicious to me. They seem to imply some misleading things on their site.
David,

I must say that I strongly disagree with your assessment of Uwingu. They're mission is clearly stated on their website, and here are the science and education activities they have raised funding for:

Currently Funded Projects

Their mission and scientific activities are clearly outlined. I understand that selling the rights to submit names for planets may sound like star naming schemes, but they are clear that the suggestions are merely suggestions and that the money goes to science.

But Uwingu is a side show here. The main point is that the IAU acted unilaterally without consulting the working group or the greater community before issuing a poorly-worded press release on a matter that many people care a lot about. Imagine if this is how they handled Pluto's status!
Hogg said…
my issues are:

(a) they are for-profit, but strongly imply that they are a charitable organization

(b) they have given away something like $5000 in grants, but the people involved must be being paid a lot more than $5000 per year to serve -- many of them are industrialists. So most of your $4.99 or $0.99 is NOT going to astronomical research. *That* is the point on which I hope they will come clear: What fraction of the money they raise goes to projects? I bet it is far, far less than 1 percent.

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