In the '60s and '70s, name-changing was fashionable everywhere, especially in Woodstock. Every Peggy decided to be Margaret, while bikers adopted intellectual names like Street Dog. In hippie and spiritual circles, people were calling themselves Meadow or Krishna - and why not?
We like stability, but we rarely get it. Cities ought to be more reliable than personal names, and yet Leningrad, Bombay and New Amsterdam vanished, along with entire countries like Ceylon and Burma.
Such fun isn't lost on astronomers. Periodically, the universe's objects get a complete makeover. While a few dozen stars retain their ancient names - which mostly come to us from the old desert-dwelling Arabs, and thus are almost unpronounceable to Western ears (when was the last time anybody dropped the name of Aquarius' brightest star, Sadalsuud, at a party?) - a new system installed a mere two centuries ago tried to lighten things up. The brightest star of any constellation, it was proposed by the German Bayer, would simply be called "Alpha." This allowed cryptic Betelgeuse to become "Alpha Orionis": twice as many syllables, but at least everyone could say it with less insecurity. The nomenclature stuck, and suddenly the sky was home to stars like Alpha Centauri.
In the 1980s, the renaming craze plugged into the ever-popular desire for immortality, with the birth of the "International Star Registry": a company that offered to name stars after you, for a modest $40 fee. Since no astronomer, observatory or anybody else will ever recognize that new name, it sounds like a scam. But it's never been illegal to call something by another name. You can even charge money, if you can find a fool willing to pay. It's name-buyer beware.
So many people bought names that it spawned a flurry of copycat companies trying to get in on the action, to the horror of the Illinois-based "Star Registry." This led to a spate of lawsuits - a bizarre "star wars" - while meanwhile, these days, each star-selling enterprise tries to offer something a bit different, like a parchment certificate or the promise that the names will be kept in a book registered with the Library of Congress (like every other book).
If so many are willing to shell out astronomical sums to see buildings or foundations bear their names, and hence stars or even galaxies, why leave it to a few enterprising hucksters to rake in the celestial bucks? The world's one real astronomical organization, the International Astronomical Union or IAU, which is solely empowered to name things in the Cosmos, could garner some easy research dollars by offering a legitimate, official recognition to individuals. Many of the existing sham star-name purchasers are far from flaky, like an Ulster County woman who bought a scam-star after her daughter tragically died. She wanted to immortalize the youngster. Heartbreaking. Shouldn't such people have a legitimate outlet? What's the harm?
But no way: The IAU is the most staid, conservative organization in the Milky Way galaxy. Go on their website and watch them ridicule the scam-companies: "We'd never sell star names," they say.
Phooey. Lighten up. There are 100 billion known galaxies out there, and only 30 have names. What's the harm in accepting donations for science research in return for naming some of them Jessica or Matt? In fact, why not sponsor a Name-the-Universe contest, to compete with the existing bizarre version where most of the entries appear to hail from the same planet? Send out invitations on outward-bound spacecraft plaques. Show the Cosmos that we know how to have fun.
The real moneymaker would lie in ownership. In an uncharacteristic bit of restraint, the first-to-get-there Americans decided not to claim ownership of the Moon. Maybe if the Apollo program had occurred back in the days of the British Empire, we wouldn't have been so restrained. Back then they had chutzpah: You'd land on a new island or continent, probably through some navigational error, and simply proclaim that it was yours. But now we don't even own each single desolate acre on which the six Apollo descent stages are parked.
You can be sure that some Middle Eastern sheik or other billionaire would pay almost anything to own the sun. What a feeling of achievement to be able to throw open the curtains and say, "Time to get up, my boy. Our sun has risen!"
Or why not sell galaxies? What are they afraid of - that the buyer will create whimsical laws or enslave the locals? Come on! People want to spend money; take it from them. Use it for bigger telescopes or cancer research and swallow your pride. Instead of continuing to label the fourth-nearest galaxy "M110," call it Nancy. Who will complain?