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Monday, July 21, 2008

Plutoid Named After Polynesian God

In 2005, Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, discovered a new dwarf planet orbiting beyond Neptune. Once officially named and classified by the International Astronomical Union, it would be the third "plutoid," a special type of dwarf planet, joining the ranks of Pluto (which was demoted from planet status in 2006) and Eris. But for three years, Brown and his colleagues referred to the plutoid as 2005 FY9 or "Easterbunny"—because it was discovered just a few days after Easter—as they tried to choose just the right name. Then, they waited six months for the IAU to approve their proposal—until this weekend, when the new plutoid's new name was announced: Welcome "Makemake" (pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay) to the solar system.
Brown has put up a neat post over on his blog that explains how he chose the name. Makemake is the chief god of the Pacific island of Rapa Nui, believed to be the creator of humanity and god of fertility. Brown shares the deep thought that goes into naming objects in the solar system, the alternative names he came up with, and how he almost gave up.
"This Christmas, though, it was suggested to me that there were rumblings within the IAU that perhaps they would just chose a name themselves and not worry about what the discoverers thought. One could say that this should not matter and I should not care; there is no science there, after all, but, I enjoy, take seriously, and spend way too much time on this giving of names. I was not interested in a committee telling me the name of something I had discovered," Brown writes. "So I went back to work."
First, came the idea of a name associated with Rapa Nui, known as "Easter Island" and first visited by Europeans exactly 283 years before his discovery of the new plutoid. Then, he studied the island's mythology, settling on the fertility god because "Eris, Makemake, and 2003 EL61 were all discovered as my wife was 3-6 months pregnant with our daughter," he says. "Makemake was the last of these discoveries. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe. Makemake was part of that." —Heather Wax