Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What not to buy for Christmas

About ten years ago I received a Christmas present that made me, well, sort of angry. The gift giver was well-intentioned. The gift was quite beautiful, and in fact I still have it, and plan to display it prominently in my new house. But it was, in my opinion, money badly spent, put in the coffers of an unscrupulous organization that sells false hope and pretty pieces of paper.

I was given a star.

Well, not really. I was given a certificate from the International Star Registry assuring me that my name was now attached to a very dim, very obscure star somewhere in the sky. (I think it was in our galaxy, but I'm not sure that was a requirement.) My name and my star would be registered in a book, and that book would be registered in the Copyright Office of the United States. And it would be my star, and mine alone, and no one else could lay claim to it.

Only it's all crap.

The International Star Registry has no more right to name, register, and sell stars than you or I do. Which is to say, none at all, or all the right in the world, depending on your point of view. Their names are not registered officially anywhere, and are not recognized by anyone. Except, perhaps, by the ISR itself, and I even have doubts about that.

A few years ago an editorial in Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazine (I forget which, I subscribe to both) suggested that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em: they recommended that local Astronomy clubs could conduct fundraisers by selling, naming, and registering stars as part of their clubs. Imagine, each and every member and supporter of an Astronomy club memorialized forever in the sky, as recorded in the annals of the club itself! It would simply be a variation on the "memorial walk" idea in which bricks are sold by various organizations to serve as memorials - memorials that only last until the next landscaping renovation.

I myself gave away a star to a friend's daughter once. I think it might have been Antares. She was about three years old, and we were looking at the stars in the Southern sky from her grandfather's porch. "You see that one?", I said, pointing to a particularly bright star in Scorpius. "That's Ciara's Star. From now on, that's what it's called. Whenever you see it, you can say, 'That's my star.'"

Only it's not, except to me. And maybe, if she remembers all these years later, to her.

So what's the harm in buying a fancy-looking certificate for $50 or $100 or whatever the going rate is? It's the thought that counts, right?

No. There's more to it than that. People fork over their money and think that they are actually doing something significant, that they are actually honoring or memorializing people in ways that aren't just meaningful, but are actually recognized by the rest of the world. And it just isn't so. There are horror stories of people visiting observatories and asking to be shown the star that they bought to honor their beloved grandmother or their son who died tragically or a brother who was killed in the World Trade Center. Sometimes quick-thinking astronomers will simply punch up the coordinates of a particularly colorful or bright star and say "There you go." Other times they will tell the truth, as good scientists often do. And the people will be heartbroken, or crushed, or will become angry - sometimes at the astronomer or observatory in question for refusing to recognize the star that they purchased in memory of their loved one. They have the certificate to prove it.

So don't buy anybody a star this Christmas. You can give them away for free, with just as much right and far more meaning.

UPDATE: Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently wrote an article on this very subject for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. From that article you can find links to the International Astronomical Union's page on Buying Star Names (the IAU is the body officially internationally recognized as the assigner of celestial names) and "The OFFICIAL Star Naming FAQ" (moved to here), as well as some fascinating (and horrifying, and this-is-AMERICA-for-Chrissakes-they-can't-do-that-ing) backstory on the trials and tribulations of the latter site.

An aside: While thinking about this I realized that it would be very easy for somebody (well, for somebody other than me) to create an online star registry. ISR's star registry isn't online; you can allegedly get the name of your star from them online, but you have to provide identifying information first. Seems that it would be simple enough to provide an online registry that would let you see who every star that has been registered has been registered to. That way I could see if my star might be sandwiched between, say, stars registered to Winona Ryder, Kelly Macdonald, and Keira Knightley, which would be wonderful indeed. It would also let you be certain that there have been no duplicate registries - and, indeed, that they haven't simply been selling photocopied star maps of the same dozen stars over and over again.

You could then tie this online registry to something like MySpace and create personalized constellations with your friends! I imagine many of these constellations might wrap around the celestial sphere in ways that would give stellar cartographers fits of apoplexy. But, hey, certain sacrifices must be made. Anybody up for the challenge? I call Antares!

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