What’s in a name

There are a lot of stars in the night sky, billions and billions of them. We can see about 4000 to 6000 in a clear night depending on how dark the sky is and also how good your eyesight is. All of the visible stars have names, or at least some designation; ever since humans looked up we’ve been naming what we saw and if you do a scan of star map then you’ll see some patterns in the names. The featured image is a rubbing of the Chinese Suchow star map from Wikipedia. These patterns include Arabic names, Greek names, Greek letters before Latin names, numbers, numbers and letters, and so on.

Way back in 1603 Johann Bayer wrote a book with the names of all the stars he knew about, called Uranometria. (Literally meaning – the science of measuring the skies). He also thought of a smart way of classifying stars in a constellation according to their visual brightness. He gave each star he could see a Greek letter in lower case and then added the genitive Latin name for the constellation that the star is in. For instance, the brightest star in the constellation of Centaurus is α (alpha) Centauri, the second brightest is β (beta) Centauri and so on. Previously people relied on Ptolemy’s catalog, which had even less stars than Bayer’s. Bayer used information from Tycho Brahe’s observations and the methodology he applied to naming conventions still applies today with about 1300 stars following the nomenclature that he developed. Below is Bayer’s depiction of Orion from Wikipedia.

The Bayer way of designating stars wasn’t the only way with a number of other attempts following, including the Flamsteed numbers and Gould’s designations. This has led to many stars having multiple designations as well as popular names. For example Betelgeuse has a number of designations including: Alpha Orionis, HR2061, BD+7 1055, HD 39801, SAO 113271 and PPM 149643. Obviously Betelgeuse is a whole lot easier to remember than the designations.

After sorting out the constellations (see our post about what’s in a constellation) the International Astronomical Union (IAU) proceeded on sorting out the stars. And we mean… all the stars! Of course the stars are much more than 88, the number of constellations, but this didn’t seem to stop the IAU who is a large large body of professional astronomers that seem to try and standardise any things they can lay their hands on (things to do with astronomy), including the naming of celestial objects. You may remember them from the infamous demotion of Pluto from planet status a few years ago. So in 2016 they established a group to look at the naming of stars in order to try and tidy things up a bit that have arisen due to different cultures and astronomers naming stars different ways. OMG! Good luck to them with that: an example of the confusion around star names is shown by the different ways of spelling and referring to the star generally known as Fomalhaut, there’s about 30 different ways. The working group aims to create an IAU approved stellar catalog. Here is the List of approved star names from the IAU.

The IAU also decided that the new names will also include common star names from cultures around the world rather than just the usual European and Middle East centric names that are commonly in use. On the 11 Dec the IAU announced that it had approved 86 new star names from around the world. The approved list now contains 313 stars, way more than I can remember. Included in the latest addition were names from the Koikhoi people in South Africa and a name from a Tahitian legend. There are also 11 Chinese names.

Given people have been looking at the stars for a very long time, some of the names that different cultures use are very very old. Aboriginal Australians have one of the oldest cultures in the world, possibly going back 65,000 years. So it’s fantastic that some Aboriginal names have made it onto the official list. Four star names were added, three from the Wardaman people of the Northern Terroritory and one from Boorong people of Western Victoria. It could be that these are the oldest named stars around, so it’s entirely fitting that they become part of the official record. These stars are: Ginan, Larawag, Wurren and Unurgunite.

The first star to look at is called Ginan, the old name is Epsilon Crucis (or should that be called the temporary former new name given that the name Ginan is probably a much older name by tens of thousands of years). This star is the fifth brightest in the Southern Cross and the faintest star depicted on the Australian flag. It gets its name from a stroy by the Wardaman people where Ginan is a red dilly bag, filled with stories. The colour of the dilly bag is from the orangy colour of the star which is an orange giant about 228 light years away.

The next star is called Larawag, formerly known as Epsilon Scorpii. In some of the Wardaman traditions the stars that make up Scorpii play important parts in Wardaman traditions, particularly in descriptions of initiation ceremonies. Each of the bright stars in the central part of Scorpius represent a person who is involved in the initiation ceremony. Larawag is the signal watcher and gives the all clear for the ceremony to proceed. Its the second star from Antares towards the tail in Scorpius.

The third star selected from Wardaman traditions is Wurren (Zeta Phoenicis) in the Phoenix constellation. The word means child in the Wardaman language but in the context of the star it means “little fish”. It’s role in Wardaman tradition is that it gives water to Gawalyan (Achernar). It relates to a ceremony that also indicates the beginning of the monsoon in late December. Like for many cultures, the position of the stars at certain times of the year indicated important markers relating to the seasons, in this case the rainy season.

The final star of the four chosen from Aboriginal traditions is Unurgunite (Sigma Canis Majoris). Unurgunite had two wives and one day discovered that the Moon (known as Mityan) had fallen in love with one of his wives (Delta Canis Major). Unurgunite and Mityan had a great fight which left Mityan heavily scarred and wandering the heavens. The bright stars on either side of Unurgunite are his wives. The “wife” that appears closer to the Moon, is the one that Mityan fell in love with. The other wife Unurgunite is known as Adhara in Western tradition. Sometimes the moon crosses right over Delta Canis Major which is depicted as Mityan having another attempt at luring Unurgunite’s wife away again.

So for me, there is huge value in using the dfferent culture’s depictions of the night sky. For one, I am terrible at remembering the names and if they are meaningless catalog numbers they are even harder to remember. But if there’s a story behind them, then I’m more likely to remember and it enriches the way we can talk about the stars and show the ancient link that us humans have with the cosmos.