By Duncan Steel 27/11/2019

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Minor planet/asteroid (2309) Mr. Spock is named not for the character in Star Trek, but for a cat that was itself imperturbable, logical, intelligent and had pointed ears

In a preceding blog post I introduced one of my favourite asteroids, (2472) Bradman, and also mentioned (6581) Sobers amongst a few others. I did have something to do with the naming of (2472) Bradman; but for (2309) Mr. Spock I can admit to no involvement whatsoever.

Here is the citation for Mr. Spock and, surprise, surprise, it is not titled directly for the character of that name in the TV and movie series Star Trek:

Named for the ginger short-haired tabby cat (1967- ) who selected the discoverer and his soon-to-be wife at a cat show in California and accompanied them to Connecticut, South Africa and Argentina. At El Leoncito he provided endless hours of amusement, brought home his trophies, dead or alive, and was a figure of interest to everyone who knew him. He was named after the character in the television program “Star Trek” who was also imperturbable, logical, intelligent and had pointed ears. 

Now here is a peculiar thing about the ‘discoverer’ of any such celestial object. The formal discoverer of a minor planet/asteroid is not necessarily the person who first spots it. The person credited with discovering this asteroid was Jim Gibson, a splendid chap I was pleased to meet a couple of times, and who was observing on 1971 August 16th at the (El) Leoncito Astronomical Complex in Argentina when he detected this asteroid. (In fact asteroid (2311) El Leoncito is named for that astronomical site.)

The full set of preliminary designations for (2309) Mr. Spock looks like this:

[(2309) Mr. Spock = ] 1935 SN1 = 1948 EJ1 = 1956 TL = 1971 QX1 = 1974 CU = 1977 SF3

That is, the asteroid is first recorded on a photographic plate exposed in 1935, and another in 1948, and again in 1956, but it may be that those detections (in the photographic emulsion) were not identified until later. That is, once the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun was determined with sufficient precision to make backward projections feasible, it may have been possible to link the discovery apparition (the designation 1971 QX1) with the earlier recordings on the photographic plates that had since lain gathering dust in an archive. Similarly, later recordings in 1974 and 1977 would have extended the temporal observed arc, making a far-better orbital determination possible. And then the minor planet could be numbered as (2309), and Gibson could suggest a name for it, as he did. The ‘rules’ in this regard are outlined here.

Gibson has 27 asteroid discoveries to his name, of which 14 are listed here. including the subject of this post, (2309) Mr. Spock.

There is only one other minor planet with a name beginning ‘Mr.’ (see the full list of names as it stands), and that is (12448) Mr. Tomkins. Its citation reads:

Mr. Tompkins is the bank clerk well known from George Gamow’s popular books Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom. His fantastic dreams and adventures help explain Einstein’s theory of relativity, cosmology, atomic structure and quantum theory. 

Whilst there is no overlap between my career and (2309) Mr. Spock, there are some very slight connections for me with (12448) Mr. Tomkins. Three links, perhaps, to be mentioned below:

(a) I was inspired to enter physics by reading George Gamow’s book Thirty Years that Shook Physics when I was 15 or 16; I was stunned by the revelations of relativity and quantum physics.

(b) I was working at the University of Colorado Boulder between 1979-1982, and had an office (F431) in the Gamow Tower; George Gamow was a professor there between 1956 and his death in 1968.

(c) I am pleased to number one of the two co-discoverers of (12448) Mr. Tomkins, Miloš Tichý, as a good friend whom I last saw at the Planetary Defense Conference at the University of Maryland in April/May this year.

As a final note, I should explain that naming asteroids for pets and the like is no longer encouraged; well, it’s actually discouraged (see below). The International Astronomical Union’s Committee on Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) is chaired by Jana Tichá, another good friend of mine and former wife of Miloš Tichý (they still work together, at the Klet’ Observatory in the Czech Republic). An introduction to how minor planets are named is available here. The guidelines for those wishing to propose minor planet names is available here.

I have been caught out by the naming guidelines a couple of times, these directions saying (inter alia):

Names proposed for minor planets will not be accepted if, in the opinion of the Minor Planet Names Committee, they are too nearly similar to those of other minor or major planets…

I could not name (5263) as ‘Harrison’ (my elder son’s name) because there was already an asteroid named for George Harrison (of The Beatles); and so that one became (5263) Arrius. Similarly, the naming of (6828) for my son Elliot was stymied by the fact that Jim Elliot (who was very gracious and welcoming when I visited Cornell University in 1976) already had one; hence it became (6828) Elbsteel for Elliot Lewis Barnaby Steel though some internet sources say otherwise (seriously, check that out†).

The rules since 2003 include the following cautions:

  • Discoverers have the privilege to propose names for ten years after numbering. Beyond that point, others may propose names.
  • Names must be pronounceable, preferably expressible as a single word, and no more than 16 characters in length.
  • Individuals or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable until 100 years after the death of the individual or the occurrence of the event.
  • Names of pet animals are discouraged.

And so, I doubt that (2309) Mr. Spock would be approved nowadays. O tempora o mores!

†Oh, okay, the website that I linked is Japanese, and it shows an earlier (deleted) English language Wikipedia page for (6828) Elbsteel. This is what it says:

Elbsteel is an asteroid. It was recorded on 12 November 1990 by Duncan Steel at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia and named after his son, Elliot Lewis Barnaby Otto Lewis Johnson Magnus Lexington Fae Tang Steel (E. L. B. O. L. J. M. L. Steel). 

The trouble with having teenage sons (they are now 26 and 24) is that they have teenage friends who are miscreants and will likely have discovered that anyone can edit Wikipedia pages, and cause havoc. The Wikipedia page for (5263) Arrius once said that I had named it for my pet tortoise (see below).

Indeed, as a lesson to all that nothing is ever lost once it has been posted on the internet (it’s always stored somewhere) here are the two old Wikipedia pages that no longer exist, as such:


I see the work of devilish youth here.

On the other hand, those teenage friends also turned up webpages that I had no idea about, such as this one (apparently I am a ‘Badass Scientist’) and this one (and, no, I do not approve of the sexism/misogyny; and, no, I was not previously aware of what my name might be construed to imply in a sexual sense, even though Americans do tend to pronounce my name as in Dunkin’ Donuts). Anyhow:

(5) Dr Duncan Steel: The title is what makes this one. This man gets to be called “Doctor Steel” on a daily basis. That is so awesome that we’re thinking of forming a heavy metal band just so we can call it that. We can’t believe there hasn’t been some sort of comic book/cartoon villain with this name. Not even a James Bond film. Madness.

That’s right, he’s Bruce Willis in Armageddon

Seriously, though, I (kinda) take offence: I’ve got far more hair on my head than Bruce Willis. Plus, two of my sisters are ‘Dr. Steel’, as is my elder son Harry, soon (DPhil, Oxford, Synthetic Biology: see this website and this one and this announcement), and I am proud of all of them.