Ep. 666: Solar System References to the Underworld

Well, we did it. We made it to episode 666, an auspicious number to be sure. What can we do to celebrate this accomplishment? An episode all about things in the Universe that have been named after mythological people and places in the underworld?

Download MP3 | Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

Star Tales – Eridanus

The Pluto System Is Officially the Underworld Realm Now (Gizmodo)

Styx (Wikipedia)

Cerberus (Wikipedia)

Moneta (Wikipedia)

Aragorn II Elessar (LOTR Fandom)

Planetary Names (USGS)

Etymology, origin and meaning of planet (Etymonline)

Andromeda (mythology) (Wikipedia)

Andromeda’s Rock (Old Jaffa)

In Depth | Pluto (NASA)

International Astronomical Union

Moons of Jupiter (Smithsonian Air & Space Museum)

The Moons of Uranus (Smithsonian Air & Space Museum)

There’s a Ninth Planet Floating in the Darkness Beyond Neptune (Tor)

Uranus, Herschel, And The Controversy Over Planetary Names (Forbes)

In Depth | Pluto Moons (NASA)

New Horizons (NASA)

Cthulhu Mythos (H.P. Lovecraft Fandom)

Balrogs (LOTR Fandom)

Mordor Macula (Wikipedia)

Pluto Features Given First Official Names (IAU)

Eridanos (river of Hades) (Wikipedia)

Eridanus (constellation) (Wikipedia)

New Horizons Kuiper Belt Flyby Object Officially Named ‘Arrokoth’ (NASA)

NASA Named Its Next New Horizons Target Ultima Thule, a Mythical Land With a Nazi Connection (Newsweek)

The universe lines up along the ‘axis of evil’. Coincidence? (New Scientist)

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Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

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[Intro Music]

Fraser Cain:                 AstronomyCast Episode 666: Solar System References to the Underworld. Welcome to AstronomyCast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Frasier Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how you doing?

Dr. Pamela Gay:         I am doing well. I am so excited about this episode, mostly because – do you have a naming scheme for your computers?

Fraser Cain:                 No.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         There’s like no history of…?

Fraser Cain:                 Nope. No. I just go with the default name that Microsoft wants to give my computers. So, “Frasier’s MacBook 003.” Things like that.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         That is so, so sad.

Fraser Cain:                 I DO name my Wi-Fi. So, my –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Okay.

Fraser Cain:                 – Wi-Fi is called “Universe,” and then I have another one called, “Multiverse.”

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Okay.

Fraser Cain:                 And one other one called, “Cosmos.”

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Is the Multiverse a network that spans multiple –

Fraser Cain:                 No.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – points? No.

Fraser Cain:                 No.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         No. That would’ve…

Fraser Cain:                 No. No, that would’ve been cool, but no. No, it’s just I needed three different networks at some point. So, no. No. But I’m assuming you name your computers mythological beasts or something?

Dr. Pamela Gay:         I do. And I’ve had Styx and Cerberus and –

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – Moneta. And they are almost all named after either a Valkyrie or a god or a river or something that has to do with the underworld. And this all started with my first computer in grad school that was named Strider after the character from Lord of the Rings, where in the BBC Audio Drama, they refer to Aragorn as Strider almost the entire time.

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         And I came home from the observatory, I had been listening to the BBC radio drama while driving for eight hours, and thus came Strider and the username I have to this day.

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Yeah, you have to explain this every time. You’re constantly having to explain what Star Strider means. Which I find endlessly hilarious. I think if you’re gonna… I never use a screen name. I’m always just my name. Frasier, –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Mm-hmm.

Fraser Cain:                 – Frasier Cain, F. Cain.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Your last name isn’t “Gay.”

Fraser Cain:                 You can be proud of it! You can be loud and proud of having a last name “Gay.”

Dr. Pamela Gay:         My SIUE email address assigned by the university was “P.Gay.” And I –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – couldn’t email anyone on either the UK or the New Zealand academic –

Fraser Cain:                 Oh!

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – email system, because it was considered… I was blacklisted because of the word “Gay” being in my username.

Fraser Cain:                 Right.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah. It’s still a problem. And then, there’s what whole you can’t say gay in Florida thing. And I want to be able to communicate with teachers and academics.

Fraser Cain:                 Well, what if it’s your name? I think it’s… I think you’ve got some kind of loophole.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         The software doesn’t care!

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         The software does not care.

Fraser Cain:                 Well, we did it! We –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         We did it.

Fraser Cain:                 – made it to episode 666. An auspicious number to be sure. What can we do to celebrate this accomplishment? An episode all about the things in the universe that have been named after mythological people and places in the underworld. All right. You’ve been preparing, you’re excited.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         I am.

Fraser Cain:                 So, before we really dive into the places that have been named after things in the underworld, why do things have mythological names anyway?

Dr. Pamela Gay:         History. This is where we started. The Greeks and Romans and also the various peoples of the Middle East were among the first to record extensive catalogues of all the constellations, of the stars. And we see the cultural links left in the names that we have today. And with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, these were the first worlds that we watched wander – I wasn’t there, you weren’t there – that humans watched –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – wander among the stars. That’s where the word “Planet” comes from, is wanderer. And so, it was seen that these were gods wandering among the stars. And the stars are often associated with stories. Andromeda, for instance, comes from a mythological story where a woman whose mother Cassiopeia claimed that she was more beautiful than the goddess Athena. Well, that may have just angered Athena a small bit, so she got tied to rocks to be consumed by the monster. And if you’re going along the coastline in Tel Aviv, they actually have a place where there is a historic marker marking the rocks where – and this was not something I ever expected to come across. But yet, there it is.

Fraser Cain:                 Hmm. I should’ve looked for that when I was in Tel Aviv. Okay. And so, then when we think about some of the places, they have… like when you think about Pluto, Pluto is named after the underworld and many of its features and so on. So, how do you get to this – which ones get designated underworld, hell, evil, places like that?

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Right. So, this is where it comes down to the International Astronomical Union. Once we got telescopes that were sufficiently powerful, that we could start seeing details on these worlds, and we started naming things on these worlds, and the smaller things orbiting these worlds, different conventions were brought up, ranging from, “We shall name things after the dalliances of Jupiter when we look at the moon,” “We shall name things after Shakespearean characters with Saturn.”

And each of these sets of rules are often multilayered. And this is our chance to commemorate different cultures. So, you will see lots of names now starting to come out of the local lore of the places where the telescopes are built.

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         This is a chance to commemorate people, where we look to the explorers, the poets, the writers. And sometimes, it’s just a chance to be silly. And this is kind of where the underworld has started to crop up, with for instance, a already-proposed name for the ninth planet that will replace Pluto as the ninth planet if ever found. It has a proposed name already of Persephone, which –

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – was kind of the wife of Hades. And so, here you have this, “Well, we demoted Pluto, but the wife is gonna get a world!” And I like this.

Fraser Cain:                 But Pluto is an underworld name too!

Dr. Pamela Gay:         It is. And so, this is where Neptune and Uranus were both named… originally, they were gonna name one of them George, after a king, and it was like, “No, no, no, let’s go back to the current pattern of Roman –

Fraser Cain:                 Right.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – names. Roman God names.”

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Pluto was picked by a little girl in England, and the symbol Pl that it uses is for Perceval Lowell. So, that little girl I think got lucky. And with Pluto, we now have the International Astronomical Union saying that the moons of Pluto should indeed keep all of their underworld-related names, and that the features on these worlds should be named after explorers, and things related to the underworld. And this is just a fabulous moment of whimsy within our community. We don’t get many of those.

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Right. Not a lot of whimsy going on in the astronomical community. Yeah, so Pluto’s biggest moon is Charon, which –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 – is the ferryman who –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Mm-hmm.

Fraser Cain:                 – carries the dead over the river Styx.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 And then, the smaller moons are – oh, Nyx, –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Hydra.

Fraser Cain:                 – and Hydra, –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         And Styx and Kerberos, but spelled with a K. I someday want to hear the story on that one. But yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. Yeah. All right, we’re gonna talk about features on Pluto in a second, but it’s time for another break.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         This episode of AstronomyCast is sponsored by Wren. A company that is striving to make it easier for all of us to understand our carbon footprint, and take actions to mitigate our individual effects on the planet. Being a scientist, I deal in data. And the data we’re seeing for our world’s climate is so heartbreaking as to make me want to look away. But when I look away, I can’t help but notice the unusual temperatures and winter tornadoes here in the American Midwest. I know that my travel and the travel of all of the other frequent flyers out there has added up to play some small role in what we’re experiencing. Sure, I know industry is the big impactor.

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Fraser Cain:                 And we’re back. So, let’s talk about some features on Pluto, because now, thanks to New Horizons, we have closeup images of Pluto and Charon, and you’ve seen mountain ranges, and glaciers, and various other features on the surface of both of these worlds. And they’re gonna need names. And let’s –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – dive into I guess underworld-related names for these places.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         So, this is one of those things where there are the weirdest combinations. You have over on Pluto, the dark region has been named Cthulhu Regio, which Cthulhu is an elder god. The name is only approximated by the human language, and is too terrible for the human ear to truly perceive.

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Right, this is Lovecraftian horror.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah. And folks, I’m here to tell you to not try to read Lovecraft. He was a terrible writer who created a fabulous mythos. So, read all of the stuff that other people have written within his…

Fraser Cain:                 Right.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah, and ultimately maybe a terrible person.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 So yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 But yeah, please let’s continue. So, I mean, you’ve got this giant – which is great. Ia, Ia, Cthulhu fhtagn! We’ve got this region that is named after Cthulhu. What else have you got?

Dr. Pamela Gay:         So, you have Balrog, which is coming more from the Tolkien lore.

Fraser Cain:                 Oh, that’s cool!

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah. And it’s all interspersed within – you really need to have an encyclopedia while you’re trying to understand all of these names, ‘cause mixed in with this, you have Pandemonium Dorsa. And I don’t know if Pandemonium counts as underworld. And then, there’s things like okay, do you count Vikings as being part of the lore, or part of the explorers? I’m gonna go with it’s part of the explorers, ‘cause it was a spacecraft, and they also have Voyager and –

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – Venera. So, it’s just one of these delightful things where they’re mixing all these different ideas together on the surface of a single world. And then, of course, next door, you have Charon. And we’ve been looking at this… blob of light was really all we could say that it was prior to New Horizons getting out there. And now, we’re seeing that it is this amazingly rich and dark world. And we have Kubrick here who was a film – film explorer? Is that a good way to put it?

Fraser Cain:                 That’s a filmmaker.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 Film explorer.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         A filmmaker.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         But who made movies that brought out the creepiness of exploring space. So, not everything stays as creepy as one might want. But It’s still pretty cool to look at. And these worlds are still largely unnamed. The New Horizons team is doing its best job, but it’s basically science paper comes out with names. Science paper comes out with names. And we’re only gonna get more and more names as time goes on.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. Someone, Zefanzefan is saying in the chat that there’s a Mordor region on Charon.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yes. Yes, there is a –

Fraser Cain:                 That’s awesome.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – Mordor on Sharon. One does not simply go to Mordor.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. Right. Right. All right, so you’ve got some more astronomical objects that have evil-ish names.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         And one of my favorites is the River Eridani that goes across the sky. This is one of the original constellations from Ptolemy. And the river Eridanus is one that has cropped up in much confusion within the mythological lore. This is a river that was fallen into after – well, Phaethon, the son of Helios, asked to drive his father’s chariot across the sky. And was granted permission. And it did not go entirely well, as he was scared of things like Scorpius the Scorpion.

Fraser Cain:                 So, he crashed the car.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         He crashed the car. And more than that… well, Zeus struck him with lightning after Draco the Dragon and Scorpius all startled and scared this young son of Helios. And when Zeus struck him with lightning, he fell from the sky and fell into the king of rivers, Eridani. And the flames are considered to still burn to this day, and lead to a stinking odor. Now, when you look at Eredani in the sky, it flows one way through the sky. And it was seen to be traveling from North to South. It was then asked, “Is this representing the Nile?” No. The river Nile goes South to North. “Okay, –

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – does it represent Italy’s river Po?” No, the river Po is more of an East-West-going river. So, this is a river that has not been attributed to one on our world, but is the king of rivers, and where Helios’s –

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – son died after his wild chariot ride where Draco and Scorpius and all of the other scary things up there among the stars scared him back down to creating chaos.

Fraser Cain:                 What else have you got?

Dr. Pamela Gay:         So here, I just wanna say, we’re getting really good at starting to find things that are associated with other cultures. And so, as we look out at the new icy worlds, we’re trying to find myths that are different. And sometimes, we are –

Fraser Cain:                 Mm-hmm.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – failing in the most spectacular of ways, ‘cause humans can be stupid. And we are starting to try and use more and more different branches of mythology as we try and name worlds that are still being discovered in the outer solar system. And sometimes, this leads to a very strange journey. One of the stranger journeys was the object 2014 MU69, which was the second icy world after the whole Pluto suite of objects that the New Horizons space probe went to. And originally, the name they picked was a little problematic. It was Ultimate Thule. Which I know we didn’t say. Did you say it over in Universe Today, other than a, “We named it this, but we’re calling it this?”

Fraser Cain:                 Well, I mean, it was originally announced. We reported on that. And then, it later –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – came to light that Ultima Thule was the mythical homeland of the Aryan race, and had various Nazi connotations. And so, another name was chosen.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         And the name that was chosen was Arrokoth, which comes from… it’s from the indigenous peoples of the Unites States. And so, here, we’re celebrating a new discovery that was made by taking on mythology that almost never sees itself celebrated in modern names in the sky.

Fraser Cain:                 But is this – and I mean, neither is in underworld. I guess Ultima Thule has some negative connotations.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         It’s beyond the walls of the world. So, –

Fraser Cain:                 Right.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – if you aren’t part of this world’s… I mean, it’s not exactly where the Valkyries carry you away to, but it just seems reasonable to –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         – include it with underworld.

Fraser Cain:                 But Arrokoth means “Cloud” in the Powhatan language, –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – which I think is fine. All right. We’ve got one that I really like that I wanna add, that I asked if we could add to this. And that is the Axis of Evil.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yes. Please explain that one.

Fraser Cain:                 No. No. I mean, I’m asking YOU to explain what the Axis of Evil is. I mean, I guess the Axis of Evil originally came from World War 2. They were the Nazis, the Japanese and the Italians were the Axis powers. And then, I think in… didn’t George Bush say that the Iranians –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – and the North Koreans and –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         And China.

Fraser Cain:                 No, and… no, Iraq, Iran and North Korea I think was the new Axis of Evil. But there was an object, a cosmological object, that was found in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation that had a weird temperature. A temperature that was outside of what you would expect with random variations in the Cosmic Microwave Background. And so, it was called the Axis of Evil.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         So, there’s also in cosmology the Axis of Evil, which is the weird correlation that appears between the plain of our solar system, aspects of the Cosmic Microwave Background. And it seems to make it look like we are in a special place, which we absolutely are not. And so, this weird coincidence has become known as the Axis of Evil.

Fraser Cain:                 And I mean, I think it’s probably what? Dust? But it’s like a correlation between, as you say, –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – the solar system and the Cosmic Microwave Background. They line up in some way.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Mm-hmm.

Fraser Cain:                 But it’s probably dust.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         It’s… yeah. We’re still trying to figure it out. Yes. It is probably dust. But it’s just one of those things that we look at. And it’s like, “Huh…” And for whatever reason, we’ve decided that correlations that don’t seem to have a causation are evil.

Fraser Cain:                 And people have proposed ideas like maybe it’s some sort of tear in the fabric of the cosmos where another universe is –

Dr. Pamela Gay:         No.

Fraser Cain:                 – leaking in, or the temperature from our universe is leaking away from the universe into this other universe. But yeah. Come on! It’s always dust. So, let’s just assume.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Sometimes, it’s a magnetic field. You have to give magnetic fields their credit where due.

Fraser Cain:                 Driving dust. But yeah. Yeah. All right. Well, I think we reached the end of this episode. Thank you, Pamela!

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Thank you Frasier. And thank you to everyone out there who makes this show possible. This week, I would like to thank some of our Patrons this week, Kellianne and David Parker, Jeremy Kerwin, Stuart Mills, Rob Cuffe, Harald Bardenhagen, Kimberly Rieck, Matthew Horstman, David Gates, Scott Kohn, Daniel Loosli, Jim Schooler, Scott Bieber, Justin Proctor, Alex Cohen, Marco Iarossi, Phillip Walker, Matthias Heyden, Disasterina, Kseniya Panfilenko, Tim Gerrish, Claudia Mastroianni, Jeff Wilson, Gregory Singleton, Benjamin Muller, Cooper, Tim McMackin, Paul D Disney, Don Mundis, Ninjanick, Kenneth Ryan, Janelle, Omar Del Rivero and Eran Segev.

Thank you all so much! You are what make this show possible.

Fraser Cain:                 Thanks everyone! We’ll see you next week.

Dr. Pamela Gay:         Buh-bye! AstronomyCast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. AstronomyCast is released under a creative commons attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it. But please, credit it to our hosts, Frasier Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website, AstronomyCast.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon.

If you want to help keep this show going, please consider joining our community at patreon.com/astronomycast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox, and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up! This has been AstronomyCast!

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