BAN #155: What’s in a name: Boyajian’s Star

October 7, 2019   Issue #155

[Saturn image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute / Gordan Ugarkovic]

Subscribers can call the stars their own.

Piece of mind

I have opinions. I try to base them on evidence.

I’ve written a couple of blog posts recently on Boyajian’s Star, the star undergoing bizarre drops in the light we see from it. Until recently it was unprecedented.

However, I don’t want to talk about the astronomy of the star here, at least not directly. I want instead to talk about its name. In both those articles I mention that the star is popularly known as Tabby’s Star, and that I’ve called it that in the past, too. But I’ve decided to start calling it Boyajian’s Star. This, despite the fact that I might lose traffic due to not calling it by the more popular name in the title of my posts.


Because, to be blunt, the name Tabby’s Star is sexist.

To be clear, I certainly don’t mean to say that anyone who calls it that is sexist! It’s more like calling it this indirectly maintains a type of sexism that I see a lot, and one that is insidiously difficult to detect and overthrow.

A lot of the time in media, men are referred to by their last name, and women by their first (this happened constantly during the Democratic Presidential debates running up to the 2016 election, for example). I don't think it's necessarily conscious, but it's a sexist bias, or at least it sets women as below men. It’s more familiar, less formal, and plays right into the stereotype of not taking women as seriously as men.

In astronomy, we have a ton of stars, galaxies, even physical constants and effects named after men, and it's always their last name. Always. Very few things are named after women, yet in this extremely rare case where it happens, it uses Dr. Boyajian's first name, Tabetha. Not only that, but it uses a diminutive form of her name, “Tabby”. To be fair that is what her friends call her — and that’s of course fine for an informal setting. But in this case I think it makes my case even more strongly.

I had actually written an aside in the first blog post above to make this point, but decided to take it out because I knew it would distract from the main scientific point of the article. But it’s an important point I want to make, and the newsletter here, on its own, is the perfect venue.

I decided to send a note to Dr. Boyajian about this. She and I have been in contact the past couple of years, emailing each other about the star (full disclosure: I do happen to call her “Tabby” in those emails, because our emails are pretty informal, that’s how she signs them to me, and she calls me “Phil” and not “Dr. Plait”). I didn’t want to make my own feelings public unless I talked to her first; I didn’t want to drag her into this without her permission.

Basically, I gave her the background info I’ve outlined here, and just asked her what she calls it. The official name is KIC 8462852, but heaven knows that’s a mouthful.

Her response was interesting. She notes that her own last name can be hard for some people to pronounce, and understands the appeal of calling it Tabby’s Star. But she herself calls it Boyajian’s Star, and noted to me that it’s important to do so for the very reasons I outlined.

[Updating an image from a post from 2017. Credit: Michael Pusatera, used by permission]

As an aside I asked her if that feels odd, calling it by her own name, and she related a story to me that made me laugh. There’s a catalog of stars that have had their brightnesses in different colors measured carefully, so they can be used as standards against which other stars are measured. A widely used set was collected and measured by astronomer Arlo Landolt, and so we call them Landolt Standard Stars. Boyajian, who had an office near his, asked him what he called a star like that, and he said “I call it a Landolt standard like everyone else.  Otherwise people don’t know what you are talking about.”

Ha! If I had my name used that way, I would totally call it “a me star”.

Still, she herself calls “her” star Boyajian’s Star, and not Tabby’s Star, even at the risk of confusing people momentarily. That is worth this risk, I think, to mainstream such usage, and the practice of just doing this in genral. It’s not exactly marching on DC or boycotting a patriarchal brand, but you know what? Every bit counts. And by referring to it this way, we set a standard for how we think, how we speak, how we communicate. It’s just like saying “crewed” instead of “manned” — which is in NASA’s own Style Guide and has been since 2006! — or “person” instead of “man” where we can.

As I wrote in that article about using “crewed”:

I know a few folks will froth and fume over this change; some people get very hot and bothered when others want to be more inclusive. But things like this cost us very little, and the payoff is large. Even if the cost were higher it wouldn’t matter, because it’s the right thing to do.

I still feel this way, now more than ever.

So from here on out, I will refer to KIC 8462852 as Boyajian's Star. I would ask that you do so as well, please. It’s the right thing to do.

Apropos of nothing

Not everything needs to be themed

While writing the essay above, I was trying to remember if the term “diminutive name” was correct for a shortened, more informal version of someone’s first name. It is, but I also found out there’s an official term for this: hypocorism. That is, taking a full name and shortening it, like Phil for Philip, or more to the point, like Tabby for Tabetha.

I had never heard this term, and I’m delighted! I love cool words like this, and even better I love words that describe words. I’ve even coined one. Obviously, the topic above is serious, but I wanted to mention that, so I put it in its own section. Think of this as a P.S.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[A small piece of a spectacular and huge image of Mars, from Tuesday’s post. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO]

Monday September 30, 2019: Updates on an alien visitor: The interstellar comet 2I/Borisov

Tuesday October 1, 2019: Mars Is Heaven!

Wednesday October 2, 2019: Where is the Sun located in the Milky Way?

Thursday October 3, 2019: Mars sounds weird

Friday October 4, 2019: Reassessing an irregular spiral: A spectacular image of the Large Magellanic Cloud

Et alia

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