[wpedon id=”1740″ align=”left”]When I left off part I, the discovery of new elements had been announced, and a rock legend Lemmy Kilmister had passed away, prompting a petition to name one of the newly discovered elements “lemmium“. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has strict naming conventions that the only people that elements could be named after are scientists. But the petition’s originator sought to circumvent this by having the element named after an actual astronomical star named “Lemmy”. And I, being an astronomy buff, had never heard of anything named “Lemmy” which was actively undergoing fusion.
The astronomical naming of things
Then, I recalled a recent announcement from the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU is an international body of astronomers that holds a similar authority over the designation of astronomical bodies as IUPAC holds over the chemical elements. You might remember them as being the body which produced a formal definition of “planet” back in 2006 following the discovery of several new Pluto-like Kuiper Belt Objects. This definition resulted in much internet outrage, for Pluto did not fulfil it and was hence consigned to the category of Dwarf Planet along with asteroid Ceres which had similarly been reclassified subsequent to discovery that it was a component of a belt of many similar objects. It’s also because of the IAU that dwarf planet Eris is not named “Xena”.
In any case, astronomers have been discovering exoplanets at a rather bewildering rate since the first confirmed detection in the 1990s, and they had generally been receiving designations like 55 Cancri b or Gliese 581 c. The planet was simply a letter designation tacked onto the star’s catalog number.
Recently, in a rare display of popular engagement, the IAU opted to hold a contest to give proper names to number of stars and their exoplanets. 14 stars and 31 exoplanets were thusly designated. This is the first time in my lifetime that a star has received a proper name, and the first time that an exoplanet has ever received one. And there are many delightful names, but not one is Lemmy.
Star naming “services”
It was at this point that I had a rather sinking feeling, my face engaged my palms, and realisation struck as to what the initiator of the petition was talking about. Let’s have a little interactive exercise. Try doing a Google search for the terms “name a star”. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
So, yeah. If you did that, you would see page after page of websites boasting that for a fee you can name a star whatever your heart desires. These services are borderline fraudulent. They will cheerfully take your money, and give you a certificate or perhaps a star-shaped trinket, which may include astronomical coordinates which might point to an actual star of a magnitude too dim to be seen with the naked eye under most conditions. They also tend to boast that the name you picked will go into a registry of sorts.
There’s a lot of these things, and by now, they’ve each sold every last star several times over. This is fictional property, clad in disclaimers of a novelty product. The registries themselves have no utility in astronomy and few and far between are the individuals who would care about their contents — no one else is likely to know or care of such a purchase.
Its sole utility is as a cutesy gift. If you’re tempted to get one for someone, you should probably be sure that the recipient does not really know much about astronomy. If you ask them what their favourite exoplanet is, and they say, “Pluto,” you might have a winner. In such a case, I encourage you to save money by just printing up your own certificate on some nice paper (much in the manner that we’d encourage those who take homeopathic remedies to just drink a glass of water). You can have your local print and copy shop do it for you if you really want to splurge.
Conclusions, and how to do it right
I must grudgingly dampen some enthusiasm: Lemmium is decidedly unlikely to ever be a thing. Even if a star had been actually named Lemmy, IUPAC’s actual rules for naming elements specify that acceptable themes include mythological concepts, minerals, geographic locations, properties, or the names of scientists. The aforementioned astronomical names are within the rules because each is also a reference to a mythological figure. Even if a star had been named via the IAU for Lemmy, he does not (yet) count as a mythological concept.
Any attempt to get an element named after Lemmy Kilmister is ultimately going to depend upon the sense of humour of the research teams which discovered the element in question. Presuming one can be found, there are perhaps a couple of ways to game the naming conventions. Both would rely upon changing the proposed name to “Kilmisterium”. First, I am notably surprised that there does not already seem to be a town named Kilmister, since it’s a perfectly fine name for one. If a town could be found which would be willing to adopt that name, it would satisfy the geographic locations criteria. Alternately, the research team could simply say that they are naming their element after mathematician Clive Kilmister — who although a touch obscure contributed much to the study of the mathematical underpinnings of physics — and wink knowingly a lot during the press conference.
A more realistic approach might be to settle for naming something else after Lemmy Kilmister, like a minor solar system body. The IAU allows discoverers of asteroids and other such minor bodies extremely broad discretion in the naming of their discoveries. Even more opportunities exist in the world of biology where new species are found all of the time and the discoverer has incredibly broad discretion as to what to call it. Note that David Bowie has both an asteroid and a spider named after him. Perhaps Lemmy could have a metal eating bacteria or a metallic asteroid named after him?