As we all know, there may be a new planet out there in the solar system–or maybe it’s not really a planet. At any rate, astronomers at the California Institute of Technology have identified a reddish-hued rock-and-ice object that appears to be rounding the sun in an elliptical orbit some 8 billion miles away from Earth at its closest distance, which is right now, and 84 billion miles away from Earth at its farthest. That three times as far away as Pluto, the last planet that scientists discovered, in 1930. Pluto is 2.3 billion to 4.7 billion miles from the sun (depending on where it happens to be in its orbit), compared to Earth’s mere 93 million miles. It takes 10,500 years for the new object to complete a single orbit, in contrast to a year for Earth.
Already there’s a debate as to whether the newly discovered object is really a planet or just a big orbiting rock. It’s only 800 to 1,000 miles in diameter, less than half the size of Pluto, the smallest of the nine planets (including Earth) that have so far made up the solar system. Even our moon is twice the size of the new object. Even Pluto has been a controversial object since its discovery. The eight planets, from Mercury to Neptune, that made up the solar system before Pluto was spotted, are not only much larger than Pluto but have their orbits arranged on a single plane, like concentric ellipses on a platter. Pluto’s orbit, by comparison, is on a tilt, so pronounced that some scientists have suggested that it may be orbiting Neptune as well as the sun. Astronomers point out that the edges of the solar system, a region called the Kuiper Belt, which is in turn bounded by another region called the Oort Cloud filled with rocks, gases, and other debris pushed out by the formation of the solar system some 4 billion years ago. The Oort Cloud is so far away from the sun that its bodies are subject to the gravitational pull of the stars. Every once in a while that gravitational pull loosens an Oort Cloud object out of orbit, sending it shooting toward the sun in the form of a comet. Are all those bits of matter really planets? Even Mike Brown, the head of the Caltech astronomy team that photographed the object last November, has his doubts.
What gases me, however, isn’t the Oort Cloud but the name that the discovery team attached to the new would-be planet: Sedna. Sedna is the name of the Inuit goddess of the icy Arctic sea.
That’s a drastic move away from astronomical tradition and in the direction of political correctness. Every other planet in the solar system bears the name of a god or goddess from Greek and Roman mythology. That’s the way it’s been for thousands of years, ever since Greek and Roman astronomers took over the study of the skies from the Babylonians. The Babylonians had named the five planets, besides Earth, that they could see with the naked eye after their gods and goddesses. The Greeks (and later, the Romans) attached to the planets the names of their own equivalent gods and goddesses. The planet Ishtar, named after the Babylonian goddess of love, became the planet Venus, and so forth. That naming tradition continued after the invention of the telescope led to the discovery of more planets and, indeed, right up through the twentieth century. Pluto, for example, is the Roman god of the underworld.
So–Sedna? As a college Latin teacher, not to mention a respecter of thousands of years of Western tradition, I strenously object. The Caltech scientists explained that it’s cold out there–but it’s freezing on Mars, too. I’ve got no particular objection to Sedna herself. She’s described in Inuit mythology as a “frightful old hag,” which is how I feel when I get up in the morning. Her biography sounds a bit debauched: Once a beautiful young maiden, Sedna preferred to make love with a dog rather than any human suitor. But Jupiter of planetary fame was also pretty depraved, bedding down anything that walked, male or female. It’s that self-consciously Third World, victimological baggage that Sedna, worshipped in Labrador before dead white European males took over the New World, carries with her that bothers me. Furthermore, Sedna has become a cult figure for legions of “Goddess”-worshippers among the radical feminists. Click here and here and here and here for some helpings of Goddess hoo-hah surrounding Sedna. According to Inuit mythology, Sedna had a cruel father who killed her when she refused to marry–just the sort of anti-“patriarchal” tale that the man-hating contingent loves. One goofy website, outoftheearth.com, states that Sedna is the goddess of “victims”–just what we need.
I’m all for adding another goddess to our solar system, for Venus is the lone female divine name out there right now among the nine planets from Mercury to Pluto. So why not name the new planet after Juno, queen of the gods in classical mythology? I think there’s a moon or an asteroid already named after Juno, but we can change that. Other possibilities are Minerva, goddess of wisdom, Proserpina, Pluto’s queen, and Vesta, goddess of the hearth (although that might be too close to stay-at-home mom-dom for the PC crowd). So, please–modern astronomy is a glory of Western civilization and we should continue to honor its Western classical roots