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Sep. 07, 2011

How They Really Name Stuff

by Sam Flatow

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It’s common knowledge that disturbing mummies means curses – pharaohs are just cranky and have a hard time getting back to sleep. It’s not like they can take some melatonin, their entire digestive track could be sealed in a jar. And who can count cats without a brain? So, it should come as no surprise that King Tut is still a little peeved and summoned an asteroid.

How do I know that this is the plot of a dead Egyptian king? It’s called Apophis, the Greek name for the Egyptian snake-god of darkness. According to myth, every night Apophis would battle the sun god Ra and lose. As for Apophis the asteroid, its path will be determined by the Yarkovsky effect, which is basically the sun’s radiation either speeding up or slowing down an object based on which direction it’s spinning. So it’s like the sun god Ra will try and deflect Apophis.

An artist's rendition of the impending space battle.

But Ra always had some backup, who’s going to help him in space? We have to send him some help. To stop an asteroid from hitting the Earth, we’re going to need someone smart, level headed, and with real hero experience. So what does the European Space Agency name their solution? The Don Quijote Project. Yeah, the windmill guy. Is he going to defeat it with the power of his imagination? This isn’t a joke; this is a sun-swallowing serpent called by an angry dead man in ragged pajamas because he can’t take Nyquil. Ok, this asteroid isn’t large enough to destroy the Earth, but we need to get serious.

Luckily, the Chinese are being serious enough for everyone. They proposed using a solar sail to smash into the asteroid head on and nudge it out of the way earlier than the proposed European plan. No fancy codenames either: just a projectile, a lot of aiming, and 200,000 miles per hour of chutzpa.

But Apophis may not be named after the Egyptian destroyer. It turns out that the two guys who discovered it were big fans of Stargate SG-1, a science fiction TV show with a reoccurring villain also named Apophis. If so, the Chinese have it all wrong then. We should really be asking Xena for some help.

No, not Lucy Lawless. That’s silly, she’s an actress. I’m talking about the real Xena. Well, the dwarf planet previously known as Xena, but that should be OK. Not even Lucy Lawless could be Xena forever. Stars come out of retirement all the time, why can’t (dwarf) planets? Michael Jordan went back to basketball, King Tut came back from the dead, and Xena can return for one more fight.

It’s either that or we name a satellite Gandalf.

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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