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This book relates the history of
asteroid discoveries and christenings, from those of the early pioneering
giants of Hersehel and Piazzi to modern-day amateurs. Moving from history and
anecdotal information to science, the book's structure is provided by the names
of the asteroids, including one named after the author.
Free from a need to conform to
scientific naming conventions, the names evidence hero-worship, sycophancy,
avarice, vanity, whimsy, erudition and wit, revealing the human side of
astronomers, especially where controversy has followed the christening. Murdin
draws from extensive historical records to explore the debate over these names.
Each age reveals its own biases and preferences in the naming process.
Originally regarded as “vermin of
the skies,” asteroids are minor planets, rocky scraps left over from the
formation of the larger planets, or broken fragments of worlds that have
collided. Their scientific classification as “minor” planets makes them seem
unimportant, but over the past decades asteroids have been acknowledged to be
key players in the Solar System. This view of their starring role even alters the
trajectories of spacecraft: NASA’s policy for new space missions en route to
the outer planets is that they must divert to study passing asteroids whenever
possible. This book provides for readers a complete tour of the fascinating
world of asteroids.