By Duncan Steel 25/11/2019


There are many thousands of asteroids with formal names, some humdrum but other more noteworthy (depending on your predilections). One of my favourites, the name of which I was involved in suggesting, is (2472) Bradman, named for the Australian cricketing great. After discussing (2472) Bradman, I also make some comments about (6581) Sobers. 

As a minor planet (synonym: asteroid) spotter, I have had the privilege of proposing names for a dozen such celestial objects for which I was the formal discoverer. These are most-conveniently found on my Wikipedia page, being named for my two sons (Harry and Elliot), their mother, two of my undergraduate-student-days lecturers who were particularly pivotal in affecting my career and providing inspiration, the town near Bath where I was born, my four siblings including elder sister Karen and youngest sister Ashley who have their own Wikipedia pages, though that is not to ignore my middle sister Melinda, mother of three and grandmother of seven; my brother Russell, father of four and grandfather of two; nor my hugely-successful parents, my father Ken who will shortly turn 90, and my mother Shirley who is the holder of the British Empire Medal in recognition of 63 years of public service to the community.

In a previous blog post I noted how Pam Kilmartin and Alan Gilmore, formerly working for decades at Mt John Observatory, have had several dozen minor planets named, many of them for New Zealanders. There is also an asteroid named New Zealand, a discovery by Jennie McCormick of Farm Cove, Auckland.

There is another way in which one can get to suggest a name for a minor planet. Initially, when they are first spotted, such objects are given a preliminary designation, which consists of the year, a capital letter indicating the half-month in which it was discovered (the letter I is not used so as to avoid confusion with the numeral one; the letter O is used, despite the possibility of being mistaken for a numeral zero; and that takes us up to the second half of December being Y); and then another letter is used (again excluding I, and using O, and using Z despite its similarity to a numeral two). That means that in any half-month there are 25 possible designations according to these rules, which was fine until electronic detectors and automated search systems were introduced, resulting in many thousands of asteroids being detected every night, and so the designation sequence is continued with a subscripted numeral after the second letter.

But let us leave that aside, because the particular minor planet which I want to discuss was initially known as 1973 DG, the seventh found in the second half of February 1973. And, you will soon see, those two letters are significant in another way.

Once an asteroid/minor planet has been tracked over a sufficient time that its orbit is secured and we know we can find it again, using a suitable ephemeris software code and large enough telescope, it gets given a number in a sequence that starts with one (no kidding). The first asteroid discovered (actually on the first day of the nineteenth century), was (1) Ceres. In recent years it has been re-classified as being a dwarf planet, but it retains that permanent designation.  Similarly Pluto is now catalogued as (134340) Pluto. The parentheses around the number are de rigueur. My ‘own’ minor planet is (4713) Steel (and there is more information here, if you are really that interested).

Once a minor planet gets that permanent number, the discoverer has a decade in order to propose a name for it. If that does not occur – for example the discoverer may have died in the interim, or decided to give the naming rights to someone else – then others can (and do) come up with a suitable appellation. So read on…

In 1996 three pommies (Englishmen) living in Massachusetts (Brian Marsden and Gareth Williams) and in South Australia (Duncan Steel), all of whom are cricket fans, noted that the aforementioned 1973 DG had been given the number 2472, but the discoverer (Luboš Kohoutek) had many other discoveries, and was not too worried about this one. In addition, in that year he had discovered Comet Kohoutek, which was amazing sky-watchers globally. In addition, Marsden was Director of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, while Williams also worked there. (Gareth/Graff later married Brian’s daughter, Cynthia; I am sad to say that Brian died in 2010.) Myself, I was at that time directing the Anglo-Australian Near-Earth Asteroid Survey (AANEAS).

The thing about the preliminary designation is this… the letters DG are the first two initials of Sir Donald Bradman (Donald George Bradman), the greatest cricketer ever to live, many would attest. And so we seized on the idea of naming this particular minor planet as (2472) Bradman. And that we did. The name was formally gazetted in the Minor Planet Circulars on the first day of June 1996, and I wrote to Sir Donald as follows, working as I was at the University of Adelaide (and, in fact, living about one kilometre from his own home in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs).

More information on (2472) Bradman is available here.

Two days later I received a kind hand-written acknowledgement back from Sir Donald:

In his closing paragraph Sir Donald mentioned his son, who was at that time a law lecturer at the University of Adelaide.

Subsequently I mounted the citation along with a photograph of the asteroid (not very exciting: just a small streak among images of stars, the asteroid moving by tens of thousands of kilometres during a photographic exposure lasting perhaps 30 minutes), and delivered it to Sir Donald. Again he wrote a letter of thanks:

In addition I sent a similar mounted version of the citation plus photograph to the Bradman Museum, which is located in Bowral, south of Sydney, and well worth a visit for any cricket aficionado:

At one stage, still living in Adelaide, I would like to tell people that there were just two minor planets that had been named for international cricketers, and both of them had played for South Australia, with one (obviously) being Bradman. Who is the other? – I would ask. They would stumble around, and so I would offer them a clue: ‘Trent Bridge’ (where Nottinghamshire play, and Test Matches involving England are hosted most years). They would often then rush to mention that great of New Zealand cricket, Sir Richard Hadlee, who did indeed play for Nottinghamshire… but he didn’t play for South Australia, I would respond.

The solution to my puzzle is indicated (a bit) by the preliminary designation of the asteroid in question: that is 1981 SO. The answer is Sir Garfield Sobers, ‘his’ minor planet being (6581) Sobers.

And now you can see why I think that (2472) Bradman is a special asteroid. But there are others, which I will come to in subsequent blog posts.

Addendum: 2019 November 26: Having mentioned Gary Sobers, there is something I realised I might add to the above story.

Starting in about 1985 I had a collaboration with Dr Victor Clube, who was then working in the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford. I will discuss the topic(s) of our collaboration in a future post. Immediately I thought I would mention a (tenuous) linkage between Clube and Sobers.

In 1957 the West Indies played a tour match against Oxford University, at Christ Church, between May 8-10. The record of the match shows that Oxford had an opening batsman named J.A.D. Hobbs, and I would like to think that his first name may have been John/Jack. Clube, having been selected as a slow bowler, batted at number 10, and was bowled for a duck in the first innings by Sonny Ramadhin, as in that lovely calypso melody having the chorus “with those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine” (the title of the song being Victory Test Match-Calypso).

When it was the West Indies turn to bat, Clube came into his own. Although WI scored 293 for 5 declared, Clube took the first four wickets to fall, the third and fourth being those of [Sir] Clyde Walcott and [Sir] Everton Weekes, two of the famous ‘Three-Ws’ of Caribbean cricket (the other being [Sir] Frank Worrell, who did not play in this particular match). The second wicket Clube took was that of Andy Ganteaume, who has the highest Test Match batting average of all (112: he played one innings, in one Test Match, in 1948), exceeding even the famous 99.94 of Don Bradman through this statistical fluke. The first wicket Clube took was that of Bruce Pairaudeau, who played for the West Indies against New Zealand in the Fourth Test in Auckland in 1956, that being New Zealand’s first-ever victory in Test cricket.

There are two things that I recall vividly being told by Victor Clube about his bowling in this game. The first was (paraphrasing), “…it was all going well for me until a young man named Gary Sobers [who was then aged 20] came to the wicket and started smacking my bowling all over the place.” (Clube finished with 4/79; ten months later Sobers scored his maiden Test century, going on to 365 not out against Pakistan in Kingston, Jamaica, a record that stood until 1994.) The second was that the famous cricket journalist usually referred to as “E.W. Swanton of the Daily Telegraph” wrote in his report that he feared this would be the highlight of Clube’s cricketing career, a disheartening opinion to read about oneself (Victor was 22 at the time) and which turned out to be true.

In his second opportunity with the willow in his hands, Clube remained unbeaten on nine runs, the West Indies winning by an innings. His career in astronomy was more successful than that in cricket, and minor planet (6523) Clube is named for him; I suppose Clube got one over Sobers there, his asteroid being slightly higher up the list (6523 versus 6581) in the minor planet listings.