Monday, May 08, 2006

Wedding presents

Regular readers will be thrilled to know that I managed to find a pair of shoes in time for the wedding, which was a lovely event. The father of the groom, who's more than a little eccentric, gave a long, rambling speech full of limericks he invented over the years and passed around 11x17 color photos of the groom in various embarassing poses from his youth. Of course, there had to be a grand gesture at the end (I was hoping in vain for something along the lines of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), which turned out to be a giant, framed certificate from—you guessed it!— the International Star Registry!

Anyone who hangs out with astronomers knows that the International Star Registry (ISR) has absolutely no legal or scientific standing anywhere. It's like selling people real estate on the moon. Basically, the deal is you send the ISR money to name a star after you. They send you a beautiful, expensively printed certificate and a star chart showing where "your" star is. Which is all very lovely and sweet except that you could name a star yourself, print yourself a certificate, save the $139 and it would be just as valid as theirs. Astronomers have their own internationally agreed-on classification and naming systems and are not going to start referring to SAO 067174 in the constellation Lyra as "Huggie Bear" just because you paid the ISR to call it that.

This issue came up on our astronomy club listserv and most of the people who piped up expressed disgust at the way the ISR preys on people's ignorance and sentimentality. But of course, someone had a story about their husband who was dying of cancer and the kids got together and named him a star from the ISR. Like my friend's father, they really meant well and wanted to make a special gesture.

The ISR website is careful to state (in small, hard-to-read type at the bottom of the page) that "International Star Registry star naming is not recognized by the scientific community." But on their "About Us" page (a large link at the top of the page), they say, "Because these star names are copyrighted with their telescopic coordinates in the book, 'Your Place in the Cosmos,' future generations may identify the star name in the directory and, using a telescope, locate the actual star in the sky." So, on balance, they're making it seem more legitimate than it is. And as far as I can tell, they don't claim anywhere that they won't sell the same star to different people—not that that really matters since it's all meaningless anyway, and furthermore there are a dozen other companies doing the same thing.

As with any flim-flammery, some people will say that if it makes you feel good or happy or loved, then what's the harm? Apart from fleecing the credulous, I'm not sure that there's any direct harm caused by the ISR. But there are plenty of wrong ideas that are harmful, so I don't think we ought to be encouraging even the ones that seem innocuous.

If you know someone who's considering buying into one of these star-naming scams, send them to the website of the International Astronomical Union (the people who ACTUALLY name stars) where they ruthlessly and humorously debunk the entire industry, while simultaneously making you feel like a total asshole for even considering it. Genius!


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