5. The Astronomer's Dilemma
The reader may well be wondering why astronomers are making such a big deal of the star naming business. After all, you may ask, what harm does it do anyone? What people spend their money on is their business; why should astronomers care, if some member of the public chooses to name some obscure star “Tracey”, instead of HD209458?
Well, there’s a very real practical and moral reason for our objection, as I’ll explain in this section.
5.1. Stars as memorials
As I said earlier, many star naming companies actively encourage the naming of stars as memorials. While people who “buy someone a star” as a birthday present may well regard their purchase as nothing more than a novelty, the same does not apply to those who buy a name as a memorial to a deceased loved one; I don’t believe that anyone would do such a thing, unless they truly believe that they are establishing a genuine and everlasting memorial, with some kind of official status. This view is borne out by the experiences of many astronomers, who have had to deal with such people.
The stars which the companies “name” – those which are known only by catalogue numbers - are invariably too faint to be seen with the naked eye, or even with binoculars in some cases. Having bought their “memorial”, people find that “their star” can’t be seen without a telescope. ( ISR, in another display of honesty, does actually state as much on its web site. )
5.2. “Please can we see our star?”
So what do people do? Naturally, they ask an astronomer to show it to them. Many observatories – both professional ones and those owned by amateur astronomical societies – regularly hold public open evenings. It has become a frequent phenomenon at such events, for people to come along and ask to be shown the star which they genuinely believe has been named in honour of their dear departed granny – or much worse, their dead child.
This presents astronomers with a serious moral and ethical dilemma. If we tell them the truth – that there isn’t really a star named for their lost loved one – then we will probably cause them considerable distress. On the other hand, if we choose to keep quiet and do as they ask, then we are implicitly condoning the business of which we strongly disapprove.
An American observatory director – the same one referred to in Section 4.6 – was quoted in Sky and Telescope as follows:
“We get about five or six people a year who want to see ‘their’ star in our telescope. About half of them are named for dead children. My biggest memory is standing here with a group of parents and children and in-laws, wanting to look at the star named for their little girl. [ Rather than upset them, ] we have kept our mouths shut and showed them the stars. But it’s a very difficult situation for us ethically. I feel like I’m going along with a scam. These people clearly believe that astronomers recognise a star named after their child. I feel like I need to take a shower when I go home.”
5.3. My friend’s story
I personally have never yet been placed in this awkward position – but several of my friends have. A very good friend and colleague of mine, who used to teach at a sixth form college, had a particularly harrowing experience during an open evening at our society’s observatory.
Several members of a family came along, asking to see the star which they believed to have been named for their son, who had tragically died at the age of 19. My friend chose the “keep quiet and do what they want” option, but felt very uncomfortable about having to do so. What made it much worse for him was the fact that he had actually known the dead boy; he had been one of his students!
But worse still was yet to come. The dead boy’s sister later qualified as a teacher, and finished up working at the same college as my friend. He therefore had to be permanently careful, never to say the wrong thing in her presence.
I sincerely hope that I’ll never encounter this situation myself. If I ever do, then my principles will not allow me to do anything other than tell people the truth. I guess I would show them the star, but then tell them the truth, as tactfully as possible, about the validity or otherwise of its name.
This moral dilemma represents the strongest reason and justification for astronomers’ opposition to the star naming business.
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