A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
Re: Star name change
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2005 Apr 8, 18:14 EDT
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2005 Apr 8, 18:14 EDT
Last week, Zvi Doron asked: "WWII texts refer to the trailing star of the big dipper as Benetnasch, whilst present day texts call it Alkaid. As star names have been around for many hundreds of years, I wondered who changed the name of this star, when and why?" It's entirely up to the editors and authors of the books in question since "common names" for stars are not official and there is no 'authority' that signs off on them (the International Astronomical Union has never bothered to make any common star names official... at best, they "recommend" consulting the Yale Bright Star Catalog for common names). Since it's up to the editor/author, I could publish a star atlas of my own and rename Eta Ursae Majoris (the Bayer name for "Alkaid") as "Freedom Fries" and technically no one could say that that's an incorrect name. They could, of course, say that I'm a goofball and refuse to buy my book... the power of the marketplace at work. Adam Smith would be pleased (maybe we should name a star after him...
). So which editors chose Alkaid over Benetnasch? And why? I don't have any answers. Peter Fogg has already explained that they're both parts of a longer original name. But I do have some data points to bring to bear. First, many of the common star names in use today owe their continuing popularity directly to the editors of "The Nautical Almanac" and 20th century sight reduction tables with specific "navigational stars" listed in them. Astronomers are much less inclined to use common names. Names like Gacrux and Becrux are clearly just modern "coinages" but they're with us because it was felt that the list of navigational stars would look best without Greek letters in it. The almanac editors dug up the (very silly) mid-19th century coinages for Gamma Crucis and Beta Crucis, and we use them today right alongside names of ancient standing. This example (apart from the modern origin) may apply to Alkaid/Benetnasch, too. If we want to understand where Benetnasch has gone, we maybe should look to the Nautical Almanacs for clues. In the American Nautical Almanacs from the late 19th century relatively fewer stars are given common names than today. Eta UMa is listed as just that --no common name at all-- in 1889 and 1903 (two dates I checked). Meanwhile, in Norie's Navigation (British) for 1902, we find the name Benetnasch for this star. Now jump ahead to 1919. In the American Nautical Almanac, which became an independent publication (see note below) in 1916, Eta UMa is called Alkaid and continues as Alkaid in every American publication I was able to check through the 1930s, 40s, 50s. In the British "Nautical Almanac, Abridged for the Use of Seamen" it is still Benetnasch in 1919. Different names on different sides of the Atlantic. Then in a 1945 American Air Almanac, there's a very interesting small table entitled "Stars, Cross Reference". It lists alternative names of stars under the headings A.A.A. and B.A.A. (two other columns also, but they're basically abbreviations). I can't find a confirmation, but it seems almost certain that these refer to "American Air Almanac" and "British Air Almanac". And sure enough, the star is "Alkaid" under A.A.A. and "Benetnasch" under B.A.A. The other pairs that differ are Adhara/Adara, Alnilam/Anilam, Betelgeux/Betelgeuse, Deneb Kaitos/Diphda, El Nath/Nath, Marfak/Mirfak, Rasalague/Ras Alhague, Rigil Kent./Rigel Kent., Schedir/Schedar. Also, the stars we know as Avior, Wezen, Alhena, Alnitak are listed in the American Air Almanac by Bayer names (e.g. Zeta Orionis for Alnitak) and no common names. I don't have anything after that date for Britain right now. When did the British Nautical Almanac editors adopt the American prefered name for Alkaid? Did they make this choice as a compromise for jointly prepared publications? Clearly by 1958, when the publications were merged, some compromises were made. Anyone have any data to add?? In Reed's Nautical Almanac from 1973, there is a nice star chart which looks old to me. That is, I suspect that it's something that's been in this almanac for decades. In big bold letters at the top of the chart, it says "Pole - Plough - Dubhe - Benetnasch - Kochab". But in small print next to the star on the chart, it says "Alkaid [Benetnasch]". Incidentally, a couple of years ago on Seesat-L (the visual satellite observers list --another fun hobby for skywatchers, by the way) someone from the UK mentioned observing a satellite near Benetnasch and an experienced American observer replied that he had never heard this name in forty years of observing. Also, on a related note, since star names are not official, their pronunciations aren't either. Years ago, astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts who were easily embarassed or otherwise took themselves seriously used to come up with awkward pronunciations of the name "Betelgeuse", which is almost universally pronounced beetle-juice today. I knew several people c.1980 who said Bet-ul-zherz in a sort of francophone manner. Another said Bet-ul-zhe because of the old American spelling. And when did the pronunciation become rock-solid and firmly settled as something that sounds like a brand of bug-juice?? That's easy... 1988. When they made the movie "Beetlejuice". :-) It's almost universally pronounced that way now. Finally, I used to ask planetarium audiences which name they found funnier: Rasalhague (Ras-ul-hay-gwee)?? Or Alpha Ophiuchi (Al-fu O-fee-yoo-kee)? Same star -- two funny names. (note from above: when I say "independent", I mean that the American Nautical Almanac was published and edited separately from its bigger, astronomically-oriented cousin, The American Ephemeris & Nautical Almanac starting with that year. Previous to this date, the AmNA was just a soft-cover subset of the bigger hardcover book) -FER www.HistoricalAtlas.com/lunars