A Star by Any Other Name, and a Galilean Interlude

Frederik de Wit's 'Planisphaerium coeleste' star chart. (1670) Frederik de Wit, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

I started writing about stars, names, designations and how we got to a point where Sirius is also known as BD-16°1591, ADS 5423 and GJ 244.

That started me thinking about telescopes, Galileo, Aristotle and Dante.

One Star, Many Names: Canicula, Mrgavyadha, BD-16°1591…

Old and New Names

Tau'olunga's illustration, path of the north pole due to precession. (2006) Tau'olunga, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.We’ve named a few hundred stars.

Some names are ancient: Sirius and Abhijit, for example.

Abhijit is the star we call Vega.

Or maybe it’s Abhijeet. Transliterating from one script to another is tricky.

Vega was near the north celestial pole when Beringia was flooding. It will be again in the 138th century.

But Vega wasn’t and won’t be as close to the celestial pole as Cynosura is.

Cynosura, “the dog’s tail,” is an old Greek name for a constellation that at least overlaps our Ursa Major. The name has since become associated with Polaris, today’s pole star.

We started calling it Polaris during the Renaissance.

I gather that “Polaris” started out as “stella polaris,” New Latin for “pole star,” but I’m not sure when “stella” was dropped.

New Latin was Renaissance Italy’s new and improved version of Medieval Latin. Its pedantic popularity peaked during the next two centuries, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Although today’s astronomers generally identify newly-discovered stars by designations, giving stars names still happens.

Barndard’s Star and Copernicus, for example.

Copernicus was Flamsteed’s 55 Cancri — AKA Rho1 Cancri and HR 3522. Still is, for that matter. Those designations are still in use. Then astronomers found a planet orbiting the star: HR 3522b, followed by 55 Cancri Ac, 55 Cancri Ad, 55 Cancri Ae and 55 Cancri Af.

In 2016, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) said that 55 Cancri’s name is Copernicus, and the star’s six known planets were Galileo, Brahe, Lipperhey, Janssen and Harriot.

How they settled on those names is a story worth telling, but that’ll wait for another day.1


Artist's impression of extrasolar planets in the pulsar, PSR B1257+12. (2006) From NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC), via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Some stars have designations, but no names. Like HR 8832, HD 219134 and Gliese 892; which are all designations of the same star.

PSR B1257+12 was also designated PSR 1257+12 and PSR J1300+1240. The International Astronomical Union named it Lich in 2015: which is much easier to say.

From what I’ve seen, most if not all stars have multiple names and designations.

Sirius has been called Aschere, Canicula, Al Shira, Mrgavyadha and Lubdhaka. We’ve added designations like α Canis Majoris (α CMa), 9 Canis Majoris (9 CMa), HD 48915, HR 2491, BD-16°1591, GJ 244, ADS 5423, and HIP 32349.2

I’ve left out a mess of names and designations for all of the above. But you get the idea: a star with one name can and usually does have many other names.

So how come, with an already-profuse assortment of names, do we give stars designations that look like alphanumeric gibberish?

Gods and Dogs

Patterns in the Sky

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's 'Porträtt, karikatyr:' portrait of Wolfgang Lazius. (1562) Photo by Samuel Uhrdin, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Thoroughly grown-up folks in my branch of Western civilization sometimes dismiss finding faces and animals in clouds as a pastime for children, artists and other lesser creatures. Lesser in their eyes.

Maybe I’m being unfair.

On the other hand, maybe being grown-up isn’t all about ignoring the wonders and beauty surrounding us.

And here’s what I see as good news: we seem to have gotten over classifying pareidolia as a symptom of psychosis, and I’m drifting off-topic again.

Our knack for seeing patterns that aren’t — or aren’t quite — there has populated the night sky with beasts and birds, mansions and gods.

It’s also helped us divide our sky into handy parcels we call constellations and asterisms.

Knowing the difference between asterisms and constellations is important to astronomers and folks like me. But I’ll grant that there’s little practical use for such knowledge.

Basically, constellations are today’s officially defined areas in the sky.

Asterisms are easy-to-spot groups of stars, like the Big Dipper, the Great Square of Pegasus or the Winter Triangle. They’re unofficial, don’t have defined boundaries, and sometimes cross constellation boundaries.

That’s today’s asterisms. I figure the ones recorded in Babylonian sky catalogs were official from a Babylonian perspective.3

Orion’s Many Names

IAU Orion chart, from IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg), via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Some constellations aren’t much to look at.

Mensa, for example, doesn’t have any stars above fifth magnitude.

Orion is at or close to the other end of the conspicuousness scale, with an impressive roster of bright stars.

That, and Orion’s (current) position on Earth’s celestial equator, gave it a role in quite a few cultures’ star lore.

Old Kingdom Egyptians saw Sah, “the Father of Gods,” in the stars we see as Orion and Lepus.

Babylonians saw Orion as Sipazianna, the loyal shepherd of heaven. Odds are that they got the name and story from Akkadians, who called Orion Šitaddaru or Šidallu.

The constellation was a hunter for several European and north Asian folks.

I don’t know why ancient Greeks renamed Sipazianna and made him a hunter when they imported Babylonian sky lore. Maybe by that time they’d already named the constellation after their Orion the hunter.

Orion had his problems in Greek myth, but so did Sipazianna.

In Mesopotamian tales, Sirius (Šukūdu) was an arrow aimed toward Sipazianna.

The Babylonian bow — or bow and arrow (qaštu) — was Ishtar’s. Maybe the arrow belonged to Ninurta the warrior. And the Babylonian bow or bow and arrow was made of stars from our southern Canis Major and part of Puppis.4

Why they were trying to shoot Sipazianna — is another question and yet another topic.

Sirius: One of 9,999 Visible Stars

Detail, Frederik de Wit's 'Planisphaerium coeleste' star chart. (1670) Frederik de Wit, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.We can see 9,100 stars, maybe 10,000, from Earth’s surface. Under ideal conditions, and not all at once.

At any given moment, our planet will be blocking about half of them from view.

And the star we orbit drowns out almost everything except our world’s moon when it’s above the horizon.

Almost, but not quite.

Venus is occasionally visible after sunup. Mercury, too, sometimes; plus a few other things.

The brightest, or second-brightest if you count our sun, star in Earth’s sky is Sirius: the Dog Star. Cultures on both sides of the Atlantic associate Sirius, α Canis Majoris, with dogs. And Ursa Major with bears. Why, I don’t know.

“Sirius” is our version of the star’s ancient Greek name: Σείριος, Seirios. It means “glowing” or “scorching.” Or something like that. Seirios led the decans in Hellenistic astrology.

Decans, 36 groups of stars in ancient Egyptian astronomy, mattered to Hellenistic astrologers. And that’s yet another topic.

Which brings me to dog days, the hottest part of summer. It’s when Sirius and our sun rise at about the same time.

Back when Latin was Europe’s common language, the season’s name was dies caniculares. Someone translated it as dog days around 1500, and the name stuck.

Ancient Greeks had Sirius in a constellation associated with a hound of Procris. Or Laelaps. Or one of Orion’s dogs.

Then, when Romans started using the Greek constellations, they turned the hound of Procris/Laelaps/Orion into two dogs: Canis Major and Minor. Or maybe the Greeks had done that already.

Anyway, there’s a mess more names and designations for Sirius — from 9 Canis Majoris and Alhabor to Sothis and Tenrosei. And, in China, Tiānláng: the celestial wolf.5

All of them doggy. And, as is the case with Ursa Major, I don’t know why.

The Exceptional Few Stars With Names

Constellations Monoceros, Orion, Canis Major and Canis Minor; The Winter Triangle asterism; with location of the Cone Nebula. Akira Fujii's image, via ESA/Hubble Images and Videos, used w/o permission.
(From Akira Fujii; via Hubble Space Telescope, ESA, NASA; used w/o permission.)
(The Winter Triangle: Procyon, Betelgeuse and Sirius. The tiny green bracket between Procyon and Betelgeuse highlights the Cone Nebula.)

A few hundred stars have names. They’re mostly the brightest ones, like Arcturus, Alkaid and Procyon. A few, like Barnard’s Star and Van Maanen’s Star, are named after scientists or — Cor Caroli, for example — other prominent folks.

I suppose we could have made names for each of the 9,000-plus stars we can see, but we didn’t. Which may be just as well.

There’s probably an upper limit to human memory for names. Researchers haven’t found it yet. Not as far as I can tell.

A few folks can remember well over a hundred thousand names. But they’re exceptional: the remembrancer’s equivalent of Olympic athletes.

Most of us seem to get by with around 150 memory slots open for names of people. People we know, that is. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with that number in 1990. These days it’s called Dunbar’s number. I gather that it’s controversial.

Maybe there’s something like Dunbar’s number for star names, too.

On the other hand, there are far more than 150 personal names.

I found 5,495 personal names in the 1990 U.S. Census. (Don’t worry: data other than names had been sanitized from the lists.)

I’m not sure what to make of the imbalance between the male and female roster. Guys had 1,219 names, from James and John to Broderick and Alonso. Gals had 4,276: Mary and Patricia to Alona and Allyn.

Each name is unique, but my guess is that some folks would scramble names like Brendan, Brendon, Brenton, Brinda, Britany, Britaney and Britini’s after their first meeting.6

Telescopic Origins

Again, I’m pretty sure that we could have given names to all 10,000 stars we can see.

But a few centuries back, astronomers learned that for every star that’s bright enough for us to see, there are more that aren’t. Many more.

The Often-Imitated Dutch Perspective Glass

Keplerian astronomical refracting telescope with 45 meter, 148 foot focal length; built by Johannes Hevelius. From 'from Machinae coelestis,' Johannes Hevelius (1673); via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
(From Machinae coelestis, 1673; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Johannes Hevelius’ 46 meter, 150 foot focal length refracting telescope. (1673))

'Dutch telescope' from 'Emblemata of zinne-werck,' Johan de Brune. (1624) Print engraved by Adriaen van de Venne.An eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey made the first telescope in 1608.

The first that we know of, that is.

Or maybe Zacharias Janssen was the inventor. He made spectacles. And legal-looking coinage that wasn’t.

Jacob Metius, a lens-grinder, submitted his telescope patent a week or so after Lippershey.

Four centuries later, Lippershey generally gets credit for inventing the “Dutch perspective glass,” and is better known than the others. Less unknown might be more accurate.

That’s a bit surprising, since Zacharias Janssen was a colorful chap. According to his son, Johannes, Z. Janssen invented the telescope and microscope. The claims would be a tad more convincing if Johannes had given more consistent testimony.

What’s more certain is that Zacharias Janssen supplemented his income as a spectacle maker by forging coins. His secondary trade may help explain some of his relocations. And that’s yet again another topic.

The “Dutch perspective glass” was developed for and used by merchants and others who wanted a closer look at what’s on the horizon.

Merchants with a “Dutch perspective glass” could, at least in principle, spot and identify incoming ships sooner than their old-school colleagues.

Being the first to know whose ship would be arriving gave a merchant with a “Dutch perspective glass” an edge over competitors. That made the new tech valuable. And copied.

Maybe re-copied. British records show discussion of a perspective or proportional glass that sound a lot like the Lippershey tech. Or Janssen’s, or whoever’s.7

Medicean Stars and the Quintessence Gap: A Galilean Interlude

'Portrait of Galileo Galilei,' Justus Sustermans. (ca. 1640)Galileo and other skywatchers adapted the Dutch perspective glass to their needs.

What they saw didn’t agree with what Aristotle and Ptolemy said should be there.

The moon’s mountains looked like mountains, for example. Not quintessence.

That’s Plato’s and Aristotle’s quintessence or aether. Not the scalar field that may give us a handle on some dark energy.

Galileo also said he saw bright specks moving around Jupiter.

We’ve named them the Galilean moons.

He called them the Cosmica Sidera, then changed the name to Medicean Stars. There’s a story behind that.

Florence’s Medici family had been the wealthiest European family in the previous century. Probably. They were still rich, and running Tuscany.

Cosimo II de’ Medici became Grand Duke of Tuscany about three months shy of his 19th birthday. He had the good sense to delegate most administrative tasks to his ministers.

That gave him time to focus on supporting science and literature. What we call science, that is. Natural philosophers who use numbers wouldn’t be called scientists until 1833. (July 20, 2019; January 12, 2018)

Meanwhile, Galileo Galilei was teaching geometry, mechanics and astronomy at the University of Padua. And not enjoying it. Not as much as he’d enjoyed living in Florence.

Galileo finished his modified Dutch perspective glass in 1609 and started studying the moon and stars. He probably — almost certainly — wasn’t the only person doing so.

He was, however, the first to make detailed notes and sketches of what he saw — and publish his observations.

Galileo dedicated his 1610 paper, “Sidereus Nuncius,” to Cosimo II.

He’d considered calling the specks around Jupiter the Cosmian Stars, but decided to call them the Medician Stars: honoring all four Medici brothers.8 It was a savvy decision, but had possibly-unintended consequences.

“Sidereus Nuncius”

Galileo's drawing of the surface of moon, from 'Sidereus Nuncius.' (1610)Galileo is known mostly for his achievements as a natural philosopher.

He also had a talent for alienating his allies and infuriating his enemies. (June 2, 2017)

Take the title of “Sidereus Nuncius,” for example. In the Latin of Galileo’s day, “nuncius” usually meant “messenger.”

That’s why we often call the publication “Sidereal Messenger” or “Starry Messenger” in my language.

That may not be what Galileo had in mind.

Some early drafts of the manuscript and related writings show that Galileo saw his publication as a report on what he’d seen, not some sort of starry revelation.

He wasn’t, arguably, saying that he was a messenger from heaven. Which “Sidereus Nuncius” could imply. And would have, probably, in his day.9

At least to folks frazzled by threats to their preferred status quo. I’ll get back to that.

Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” didn’t need a provocative title to make waves.

The Lunar Terminator

Galileo's illustration, showing method of measuring Lunar mountains, from 'Sidereus Nuncius.' (1610)Galileo said he’d seen the Lunar terminator, where the sun is setting or rising on the moon, get ragged when it passed over brighter areas.

His explanation was that our moon has mountains, like Earth.

He was right about that.

Galileo tried measuring the height of Lunar mountains, using the sort of geometry used by surveyors and architects.

Practical geometry that had been around for centuries. Millennia.

He estimated the angular distance between Lunar mountaintops and the terminator. That, and the moon’s distance, made Galileo’s Lunar mountains four miles tall. Four Italian miles.

He was right about that, too. Within an order of magnitude, at any rate.

Folks like Aristarchus of Samos and Eratosthenes of Cyrene had given Galileo a head start by measuring the distance between Earth and its moon. How accurate, or inaccurate, each was is debatable: and debated.

Galileo’s assertion that “in the Earth there are no mountains which reach to the perpendicular height even of one mile” suggests that he meant mountains measured by the ancients.

Some of Earth’s Renaissance mountains were really tall. On paper. Apparently.

Tenerife’s Pico del Teide’s height, for example, was 90,000 meters. According to Joseph Justus Scaliger, as cited by Marco Piccolino and Nicholas J. Wade. That’s almost 56 miles.

Today, Teide’s height is given as a bit over 3,700 meters. How much over depends on who’s talking.10

Using intellectual tools developed by pagans wasn’t what got Galileo in trouble. Neither, I think, was his abrasive personality. Although it didn’t help his case.

One big problem was Aristotle’s 17th century European academic fan base.

Another was a nasty economic and political situation that had been brewing.

Clash of the Icons: a Galilean Interlude Continues

Claude Lorrain's 'Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum.' (ca. 1634)
(From Claude Lorrain, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

I like ancient history partly because we can see how the stories came out. Provided enough records and clues endured.

For anything after Roman emperors stopped being power brokers, my view is that we haven’t seen the story’s end yet.

Sure, dynasties and kingdoms have come and gone.

But I see those as subplots, like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bit in “Hamlet.”

The main plot of the current story, how we adjust to a post-Roman world? As I see it, that’s still unresolved. And dust is still settling from two particularly interesting periods.

Make that three: the first starting about a millennium back, followed by the Renaissance and whatever we’ll call the one starting in the 19th century. Oversimplifying the last thousand years. Enormously.”11

Reactions to “Sidereus Nuncius”

'Sidereus Nuncius,' Observat Sidereae 20, Galileo Galilei (1610)
(From Galileo, via Smithsonian Libraries, used w/o permission.)
(Galileo’s “Medician Stars.” (1610))

Reactions to “Sidereus Nuncius” were mixed. Some folks wrote poems and painted pictures in celebration of the new astronomical science. Other freaked out. And, in some cases, said that the Medicean Stars were a lens defect.

Some, not all, Catholic clergy were among those having conniptions.

I figure you’re familiar with the currently conventional description of what happened.

“…The flux and change that Galileo now revealed bespoke a more chaotic system, a less-than-godly lack of organization….”
(Summary, “The Starry Messenger,” SparkNotes)

‘And behold! Copernicus and Galileo, champions of truth and science, did challenge the dark forces of superstition and ignorance – – -.’

Not that folks with that viewpoint are known for using ersatz antique English.

To their credit, the SparkNotes summary discusses Galileo’s personality and some of what was upsetting applecarts in 17th century Europe.

Here’s where I get back to Galileo’s calling Jupiter’s moons the Medician Stars: honoring all four surviving de Medici brothers: Cosimo II, Francesco, Carlo and Lorenzo.

And dedicating “Sidereus Nuncius,” “Starry Messenger,” to Cosimo. It was a shrewd career move, one which arguably led to Cosmo II giving Galileo a job as court mathematician.

As court mathematician, Galileo had more time for research. Considering what he learned, I’ll count that as good news.

But his new position, plus the publication’s dedication, made his opinions and “Sidereus Nuncius” a matter of state.

Today’s star names and designations might be less eclectic, if someone had established a uniform astronomical cataloging system in the early 1600s.

That didn’t happen.

Partly, I strongly suspect, because Europe’s bosses had been ramping up their turf wars.

Speaking of which, what we call the Thirty Years’ War started eight years after Galileo published “Sidereus Nuncius.”12

Galileo’s Legal Trouble

Cristiano Banti's 'Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition.' (1857)
(From Cristiano Banti, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Clash of the icons: ignorance and oppression vs. Galileo, champion of truth and science.)

Invoking the ever-popular post hoc ergo propter hoc principle, I could say that Galileo caused the Thirty Year’s War by publishing “Starry Messenger.”

But I won’t. That’d be daft.

I also think framing Galileo’s heresy trials as an archetypal confrontation between truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance, is daft.

But when I last checked, the notion’s still popular. In some circles, at least.

So I’ll briefly — for me — say why I think Galileo’s legal trouble was more a matter of politics and paranoia, and less a case of religious leaders striving to suppress science and oppress the masses.

Backing up a bit, trade routes connecting Europe and the rest of the world broke down when the Roman Empire went out of business.

Folks in my forebears’ part of the world spent the next half-millennium developing substitutes for Roman social and economic institutions.

Then, around the 11th century, they began re-opening pre-collapse trade routes. That was good news, mostly for merchants and warlords in southern Europe.

Fast-forward another half-millennium.

Outfits like the Venetian Stato da Màr were getting rich. I suspect that folks in northern territories like the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen profited, at least indirectly.

But I also suspect that northern princes felt, reasonably or not, that overlap between secular and Church authority was keeping them out of the lucrative loop.

Then a monk posted a ‘topics for debate’ memo, printers made copies, and political bosses in northern Europe saw their opportunity to cash in on public opinion.13

Oversimplified? Yes, certainly.

A point I’m making is that — although customs, concerns and catchwords have changed since the Galileo affair — issues weren’t any simpler, four centuries back.

“Remarkable Stupidity” and the “Common Herd”

Kepler's Platonic solid model of the Solar System, from 'Mysterium Cosmographicum.' (1596) Via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Let’s remember that European politics was near the boiling point when Galileo wrote to Kepler about “the remarkable stupidity of the common herd:”

“My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.”
(Letter to Kepler, from Galileo (1610)
via “What is the moral obligation of a scientist, if counter-evidence is offered to expose implicit flawed beliefs at the root of a scientific discipline?,” Raju Chiluvuri, pioneer-soft.com/researchgate.net (2017))

And let’s remember that what we call the Thirty Year’s War and his heresy trials started around the same time.

Maybe authorities of the early 17th century were nobler, wiser, and less prone to panic than today’s. But I’m guessing that they weren’t.

Partly because I remember McCarthism’s afterglow, was doing time in academia when political correctness was in bloom, and don’t see the wisdom of reducing crime by defunding the police.14

“The Master of the Men Who Know” — Aristotle and Human Nature

Detail, Gustave Doré's 'Canto IV - Limbo, Dante is accepted as an equal by the great Greek and Roman poets.' Plate 12 (1857)
(From Gustave Doré, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Doré’s ‘Inferno,’ Canto IV, illustration: Dante meeting great Greek and Roman poets.)

Schematic diagram of Peter Apian's (Petrus Apianus) cosmology, largely reflecting Aristotelian physics and cosmology. From Peter Apian's 'Cosmographia,' annotated by Gemma Frisius. (1524) Reproduced in Edward Grant's 'Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages.' (1987)Aristotelian physics was a pretty good fit with observed phenomena for more than a dozen centuries.

It also meshed nicely with Ptolmey’s geocentric cosmology and Old Testament poetic imagry.

Then, not quite a millennium back, European scholars started reviewing and discussing what Aristotle and other ancient philosophers had said.

One of the more contentious points was whether or not Earth was unique.

Some said Aristotle was right, and we were standing on the only world in this universe. Others said that maybe there were other worlds.

Discussions got heated, and the ‘one world’ advocates said there must be only one world, because Aristotle said so.

That’s when the Bishop of Paris stepped in. Several times. The Condemnation of 1277, including point 27, has been rescinded. But the principle is still valid.

God’s God, Aristotle’s not.

If God wants a universe with more than one world, that’s what happens.

Despite that reality check, maybe-excessive reverence for Aristotle endured:

“Higher I raised my brows and further scanned,
And saw the Master of the men who know ♣
Seated amid the philosophic band;
“All do him honour and deep reverence show;
Socrates, Plato, in the nearest room
To him, Diogenes, Thales and Zeno,”
(♣ – Aristotle)
(“Divine Comedy, Inferno,” Canto IV, lines 130-135, Dante Alighieri (1308-1320)
Trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers, (1949))

Seven centuries after Dante, philosophers are still human: occasionally mistaking urban legend for observed reality. Pop-science versions of the Mozart Effect, for example.15

And when the Thirty Year’s War began, and ideas linked with Galileo’s “Starry Messenger” hit the fan, I suspect that lack of reverence for Aristotelian principles did not help his case.

Star Maps and Seeking Truth

Jim Cornmell's sky chart of Caldwell Objects (September 3, 2006)) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
(From Jim Cornmell, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Objects in the Caldwell catalog.)

Constellation Orion, from Johann Bayer's 'Uranometria.' (1661) From United States Naval Observatory Library, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Now, finally, about star catalogs.

The dog star’s proper name is Sirius.

Johann Bayer called it α Canis Majoris, Alpha Canis Majoris, in his “Uranometria” 1603 star atlas.

Bayer’s system, identifying a star by a Greek letter and Latin possessive form of the Ptolemaic constellation it’s in, caught on.

We still use Bayer designations for our sky’s brightest stars.

Bayer’s “Uranometria” was an improvement on Ptolemy’s star listing, but it wasn’t the ultimate star catalog.

Each of the “Uranometria” 48 plates was both a work of art and an accurate star map.

That’s the good news. The less-than-ideal news is that Bayer’s table of stars for each plate was printed on the back of each plate. In the the first edition. Subsequent printings didn’t bother with the star listings.

Let’s see. “Uranometria,” 1603: artistic excellence and high accuracy. But awkwardly-placed, and then missing, star tables.

Frederik de Wit’s 1670 “Planisphaerium Coeleste,” more of a high-end poster than useful astronomer’s reference. My opinion.

John Flamsteed’s 1729 “Atlas Coelestis,” at the time the first star atlas based on telescopic observations, and a standard professional astronomer’s reference for a century.

Each star in “Atlas Coelestis” had a Flamsteed designation, which is like a Bayer designation but with a number instead of a Greek letter.16

Diverse Designations

Visual overview of input catalogs and methodology used in constructing the TESS Input Catalog (TIC). (2019) From Stassun et al. 2019, via NASA, used w/o permission.
(From Stassun et al. 2019, via HEASARC/NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Photometric catalogs cross-matched and/or merged for the TESS Input Catalog (TIC).)

So, we’ve got Bayer designations and Flamsteed designations. And, starting in 1879, Gould designations. Johannes Hevelius and Johann Elert Bode had their star catalogs with unique designation, too.

How come European astronomers, at least, didn’t agree on a standard star cataloging system?

I don’t know, but that won’t stop me from speculating.

For one thing, 17th through 20th century social and political climates weren’t amenable to international cooperation. Besides, I figure folks like Johann Bayer and John Flamsteed preferred making their own star catalogs.

And there are practical reasons for making specialized catalogs.

Like Patrick Moore’s 1995 Caldwell catalogue for amateur astronomers: listing 109 star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies.

And the NASA/MIT TESS Input Catalog, TIC, part of an ongoing search for exoplanets. The last I checked, TIC has upwards of 1.5 billion entries.

Small wonder astronomers work with specialized catalogs, each dealing with a fraction of the data we’re accumulating.

As for the alphanumeric gibberish of catalog designations, they’re arguably easier to keep track of than a myriad names like Brendan, Brendon, Brenton and Brinda.

The IAU Working Group on Star Names has been working on establishing standardized names and designations for stars,17 and that’s still another topic.

“…Fighting a Joint Battle….”

In 1277, a bishop reminded scholars that God outvotes Aristotle.

Seven and a half centuries later, highbrow fashions have changed, but God is still large and in charge.

I’ll close with what a scientist, a pope and Psalms said about God, truth, and getting a grip.

“Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against skepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’
(“Religion and Natural Science,” Max Planck (1937) translation via Wikiquote [emphasis mine])

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

“Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.”
(Psalms 115:3)

I’ve talked about this sort of thing before:

1 Stars, language and names:

2 Stellar monikers:

3 Standards and perceptions:

4 Babylonian background:

5 Constellations and categories:

6 Names and numbers:

7 Telescope tales:

8 Galileo’s world:

9 A famous book:

10 Measurements and measuring:

11 Living in interesting times:

12 Art, opinion and politics:

13 Lore and a legend:

14 Assorted nuttiness:

15 Philosophers and cosmology:

16 Catalogs and catalogers:

17 More catalogs, mostly:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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