Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A History of Modern Star Designations

(condensed, with tongue slightly in cheek)

In the 1603, Bayer assigned Greek letters to stars in each constellation, but some were so badly drawn, you couldn’t tell what star he meant. Flamsteed tried to fix things up, but he was missing the catalogue that went with the atlas, and he only made things worse.

Then Lacaille mapped the southern constellations and used so many letters, people couldn’t discriminate the ο with the o, the χ with the x, and atlases still get them confused (I kid you not!). Bode added some designations, but people forgot most of them. Baily spent considerable effort tracking down Flamsteed's errors, but not everyone listened to him. Argelander reckoned if he couldn’t see a star, it didn’t deserve a designation--so he removed it, no matter what Baily said. Heis had better eyesight, but he sided with his buddy anyway. Gould then removed some more designations, and re-added others had deleted...

Finally, in 1930, the IAU stepped in and defined the Constellation boundaries once and for all. But they didn't think to standardize the nomenclature of stars at the same time, so we're left with a mess where stars designated Norma are in Scorpio, stars designated as being in Orion are in Monoceros. Astronomers and cartographers follow whatever convention they see fit to. And they call astronomy a science! ☺


  1. And if you can differentiate ο from o above, you're a better man than I. The first is Oh, and the second is Omicron. I think. Some constellations use both designations (Perseus, would you please stand up).

  2. What is needed is a new "font", if you will, which includes all the characters needed, including all the roman and greek letters, arabic numbers, etc., with glyphs that uniquely distinguish each character, one from another. Then we need this "font" to be adopted into the catalogs and by the community at large.

  3. That would go a long way in helping. I think some publishers have done this better than others.