Posted at 03:07 PM ET, 12/20/2011

Scientists give Earth-sized planets a bad name


This is actually Kepler 22b, but I’m planetist so they all look the same to me. (Photo Illustration by Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA - Getty Images)
Breaking news: scientists have found two earth-sized planets orbiting another star!

This is exciting!

This means we’re within inches of discovering an actual Earth-sized planet with conditions for life!

Unlike Earth, the two recent discoveries are too hot to handle, not “Goldilocks” planets in the habitable zone capable of liquid water and sustaining life.

And their names are Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f.

The planets seem to have personality — Kepler 20e is smaller and boasts a six-day orbit time. Kepler 20f is almost exactly Earth’s size and slightly farther out, orbiting only every 20 or so days — still too hot to live on (800 degrees) although we could always use it to farm planet-fired pizza.

But their names totally lack personality.

Planet Hunter Dimitar Sasselov commented, “Everybody wants pretty names. But what do we do? There will be thousands of these planets.”

This is probably how the Duggars feel.

And at the rate we’re bagging and tagging new planets, this is going to be a problem. Sure, scientists prefer this alphanumeric system — it helps them file, or something — but think of the potential for awkwardness in large parties.

At the rate we’re going, it’ll be awfully confusing when the planets get together at reunions — we have a Big Crunch coming up in a few millennia, after all — if even a tiny portion of their nametags get obscured. “You’re Kepler 20b? Oh, I thought you were Kepler 20l. I can’t give you this, it’s for a gas giant.”

This is the same sort of easy mix-up (is that a 1 or an L?) that results in Rick Perry calling the deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong II.

We can do better, science!

And we never have a shortage of names. The names we’re giving our actual human offspring aren’t pretty, but they are distinctive. Why don’t we try something more like that?

To bolster my case, I went to see what names we were chosing for our babies, glancing at a list of 2011’s Top Names and Names Expected To Be Resurgent in 2012.

According to Parenting.com, the most popular baby names of 2011 were Isabella and Jacob, like the Twilight characters. Second place for girls? Sookie, like the female lead in True Blood, the other vampire series.

Maybe the astronomers are on to something.

Perhaps we should ask people if they’re trying to name their daughters after the Twilight heroine, and if they are, we should say, “How about Meyer 20b?” It seems more logical. “Vampire Name 8a,” is sort of a mouthful, but it has a logic to it I find compelling.

“Romance Novel Vampire 8a? I’m Adult Television Series Vampire 8b!” girls and boys will squeal at the playground.

“Both our parents were clearly ready for kids.”

“Nerd family, huh?” bullies will taunt, kicking sand at poor Star Wars Name 8g.

“At least I have dignity, Celebrity Baby Name 11f,” Star Wars Name 8g will snuffle back.

You get the general idea. Names are things that we assign to people either thinking too much — “Something polysyllabic, yet mellifluous, but not too mellifluous, with family resonance, but that doesn’t sound like it might be a good name for a horse” — or too little — “Jeff? Yeah. Sounds good” — and they’re stuck with for life, unless they undergo some sort of crisis where they attempt to change it to an unpronounceable symbol mid-career to discourage people from buying their records.

So maybe I’m going about this wrong.

Maybe the scientists are right: Once you have eight Bellas in a room, you need to stop, even if it means calling everyone Kepler This and Kepler That and Kepler Whosie Whatsit 9.

The most important thing is the discovery. At the rate we’re detecting, and given the sheer number of stars and planets out there, this means it's only a matter of time before we spot an earth-like planet within the habitable Goldilocks zone, and all our speculations as to whether There Is Life Beyond become decreasingly theoretical.

We can spot rocky earth-like planets. There must be something out there.

Maybe it’ll have enough sense not to name its kids Moroccan, a geographic moniker favored by Mariah Carey that I hear will be hip, come 2012.

By  |  03:07 PM ET, 12/20/2011

Tags:  Science, Rick Perry, names, kids these days

 
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