The Webb Telescope will be an astonishing new step in astronomy. Already a decade in the making, it will be the most precise instrument ever built, gathering the equivalent of a full set of Hubble Space Telescope observations. But the telescope still needs to make it through one final, yet unknown, hurdle in order to go on.
On December 23, 2018, the global movement Wikipedia asked its citizen editors to rename its involvement in the telescope’s selection and naming process. The organization says that in order to avoid the problem of awkward names for objects or people, the group has a rule against the organization “pouring money or time into naming the projects” because its decisions are ultimately made by its contributors and not by its leaders.
For millions of people, the news is a bit of an anticlimax, because the Wikipedia contribution didn’t alter the name at all. So why is it causing such consternation among scientific professionals?
The newest route for naming the telescope has already been pursued: the Hubble International Base Name Committee (the IBNR), a subgroup of the Webb Telescope, established in 2016 in order to support the telescope’s naming and naming agreement process. Once the telescope is finished and it makes its launch for the international community, this committee will review and approve the names that have been provided to it by other parties who participated in the international agreement.
While the IBNR will not reject or approve any potential names, it will provide the science community with feedback and information about which of these names received the most votes. The IBNR will provide input to ensure that the planets found on the Webb Telescope have the most accurate names possible. For example, the committee may object to a name if it cannot relate to the scientific object found on the telescope or to some other aspect of the project that seems to some to be incongruous. If the IBNR does so, the Webb Telescope will find another name until the IBNR feels that this name is in line with the project.
This process is not the first time that the astronomical community has come together to give their blessing to naming a project. Astronomers often utilize these “name-a-star” contests and campaigns to give stars and moons new names for their discoveries, and some experts are concerned that naming the Webb Telescope will inspire similar names. One name that has already been proposed is Elagro Santos, after the person who campaigned the most on YouTube to have the Webb Telescope named in his or her honor. One of the main concerns is the possibility that some of these new names may encourage improper uses of the field. For example, a name such as Ganesha will raise questions about species names in biology, while Elagro Santos suggests that these stars should also be told the story of their deity’s life.
Other experts argue that this process helps avoid potential insults, because it allows for suggestions to be made by public organizations that respect and honor the unknowns of our universe. One ID available on Wikipedia under the Webb Telescope name is a suggestion for a “nascent asteroid” – which advocates for potentially inappropriate uses of the name worry may stand out even more from the millions of other names on Wikipedia.
Public collaboration is important to the goal of naming the Webb Telescope. When the public cannot submit a name of their own, it is essential that this community of researchers have the power to dictate which ideas are considered.
Examination of history reveals that naming and naming processes are increasingly important for scientific discussion and research. Traditionally, scientists have tended to name their publications and their theories after families or individuals, naming research papers after a person’s life. More recently, however, scientists are beginning to notice that more rarely do people wish to have a particular researcher or scientist named after them, in recognition of the role of the scientist and the role of the discovery. This, in theory, could reduce an increase in egocentric naming that leads to significant problems. In effect, naming a scientist “Elagro Santos”, or “Mezhgan Sharifani”, can bring to mind many questions and concerns related to the scientist’s long and productive career. If scientists want their work to stand out for its scientific value, name identification and the importance of it should be essential to academic self-identification.
James Schell, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
Dr. James Schell is the David and Joan Lindloff Professor of Planetary Science at Harvard University.