Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 18, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby — The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 3


I honestly haven’t seen this one that I remember — yet (I’m working on very little sleep and 14+ hour days right now) — but I suspect it’s only a matter of time from more conservative religious conspiracists: The naming scheme for Pluto and Charon. Some background is needed …


In planetary science, one might wonder why we care about naming things. It seems to be a remarkably human-centric thing, for why should we have to feel like we need to stick a name on everything?

The answer is ease of communication. If you say “Tycho crater” to just about any planetary scientist, they know the exact lunar crater you’re talking about. Same with “Copernicus crater,” or “Mare Imbrium.” The alternative is something like, “The big crater with bright rays near the bottom of the moon if the north is up.” Or something like that.

Other than historic objects, things these days on planetary surfaces generally only get named if there’s a reason for it: As in, it’s an interesting feature that we’re going to be talking about a lot. Not every feature on every body is named.

International Astronomical Union (IAU) Policy for Pluto System

Because Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, and Charon is the Greek ferryman of the dead to the underworld, the International Astronomical Union — the only official naming body in the world for naming stuff in the solar system and beyond — decided that the theme of “underworld” is going to stick, at least for major features. Sometimes this varies, but more on that later.

There is a sizable component of conservative Christians who think that any naming, or any reference, to such is an affront to their god, that it is occultism, Satan worship, etc.

Another side-rule is that no name should be duplicated.


There are lots of “levels” of names. There’s the official IAU name. There are provisional, recommended names to the IAU. There are “for fun” names used within the science team. And there are “would be nice” names used by individual people.

As an example of the last item, there are many craters right now on Pluto and Charon named “Robbins” with a lot of numbers after it. For a friend, there are two “Banks” craters (one because I’m not sure if it’s real because of JPG compression artifacts). But that’s just for fun.

The more formal process, those other three levels I mentioned at the beginning of this section, varies somewhat. In the case with New Horizons and the Pluto-Charon system, a public website was launched months ago where people could both recommend and vote on names.

This was vetted by a very small group within the New Horizons science team, raking names by popularity, looking for gender and ethic biases, removing incredibly offensive names, and removing those used elsewhere (e.g., there’s a “Lonely Mountain” on Titan, so even though we’ve been referring to one on Pluto lately in the team, it cannot be recommended as an official name to the IAU, but this falls into the third category of “for fun” by the team).

So, the biggest stuff is going to get the most popular names from the list. And by “get,” I’m talking about that that second level, the recommended-to-the-IAU level. Which I think pre-approved “Tombaugh Reggio” before-hand. But beyond that, all names must be submitted to the IAU, and hence they are called “provisional names” until the IAU approves or rejects them.

The “Offending” Name(s)

Right off the bat, I figure that there will be some groups that are offended already by the “underworld” theme. But I read some very über-right-wing Christian / conservative websites. One of the beliefs among them is that anything “new age,” anything they perceive as pagan or “occult,” is Satanic, and therefore directly opposed to their version of a deity.

Enter Cthulhu (pronounced something like “coo-THOO-loo”). It was a deity created by H.P. Lovecraft. To quote from Wikipedia: “Lovecraft depicts Cthulhu as a gigantic entity worshiped by cultists. Cthulhu’s anatomy is described as part octopus, part man, and part dragon.”

Lovecraft himself is often viewed by these über-conservative Christians as an occultist/cultist himself, and the fact that a major low-reflectivity feature on Pluto that has been provisionally named after a “demonic” deity that Lovecraft dreamed up is likely going to not sit well with them.

However, my understanding is that it was selected because it was one of the most popular names in the voting.

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s it for now. Back to work. I expect to do at least two more of these, another about young-Earth creationists’ take on this and another about Crrow777’s take on this (he’s been getting a lot more press lately, so even though I really don’t want to give him more because question his mental fidelity).



  1. Do you have a link to a fundamentalist site that’s already complaining?

    Comment by Trekker — July 18, 2015 @ 11:13 am | Reply

    • I do not. As I said, this is something that I don’t think I’ve seen yet in this case, but I have seen similar complaints about similar things.

      That said, here’s a quote from a commenter on WND: “Now they are going to name everything in the Pluto system after the devil and evil entities. I guess they should call the dark spot on Charon ‘Obama’ and the place on Pluto they call the whale, that’s an easy one, just name it after fatso himself, call it the ‘Soros’ those names will go well in a planet system using evil entities names.”

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 18, 2015 @ 11:58 am | Reply

  2. You’d think the fundamentalist Christians would be all over naming the whale area “Leviathan” or something similar. If I understand right, that designation was based on the really early, very pixellated pictures. I’d be surprised if it’s used as an official name.

    Anyway, doesn’t complaining about names amount to low-level grumbling about stuff that really isn’t all that important? After all, Pluto’s had its moniker for 85 years now — you’d think everyone would be used to it.

    Comment by Rick K. — July 18, 2015 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

    • First sentence: Perhaps.

      Second sentence: The large “whale” albedo feature is still there and seems fairly consistent, so it’s a large area that’ll likely have a name. as a single unit.

      Second paragraph: Of course. But WND (for example) is now grumbling about an epidemic of pornography. Never question how minor of minutia people will get upset about.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 18, 2015 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

  3. In a very old filmed interview of H.P.Lovecraft,he said “Cthulhu” was an attempt by humans to say a name of a being with a different (non-human) vocal apparatus, and he pronounced it Cut-Hool-Hoo. Note the “th” is not a diphthong. He also looked and sounded stern and eerie, somewhat like Lurch of the Addams family. In his stories,and in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, Cthulhu often manifests himself as a gigantic toad.For a good (and humorous) example, see “The Seven Geases” by C.A. Smith . Note that “geases” is NOT a typo.

    Comment by unicorndaniel — July 19, 2015 @ 11:01 am | Reply

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