Dear Cecil: I’ve been hearing advertisements on the radio for years now, urging us to “name a star for a loved one” by sending $35 to the International Star Registry. Is this outfit for real? If I send my $35, will there be a legitimate star in the actual sky named for me? And will this name be internationally recognized forever? Eric Lundberg, Chicago
The original version of this column appeared in the late 80s and by now one supposes the International Star Registry has flamed out once and for all. But naming stars is one of those scams you know in your heart will never really die. I swear I heard somebody on the radio selling the chance to name a star just the other morning. So the following may still be instructive.
If you read the International Star Registry brochure carefully you’d have found that all they promised to do was “register” a star in the name of your choice. This meant they wrote it down in a book. Needless to say, you can get this done for a lot less than $35. I, for one, will do it for a double sawbuck, and think of you often when I spend your cash on my next Caribbean cruise.
Unfortunately, no matter who you paid your money to, the only way your star would have been “internationally recognized” was if you told it to your brother-in-law in Tobago. The only accepted authority on star naming is the International Astronomical Union, which has never had a connection with the International Star Registry or any other such outfit. The IAU has called attempts to exploit the general ignorance on this subject a “deplorable commercial trick.”
The thing that gave International Star Registry an ersatz aura of respectability was the claim that they’d put your star name in a book they were going to register with (drumroll) “the copyright office of the Library of Congress in the United States of America.” As any fool knows, or ought to, you can copyright just about anything if you fill out a form and pay the fee. Copyright merely protects the rights of authors; it doesn’t mean the government vouches for what’s in the books.
In 1985 the copyright office issued a statement disavowing any connection with star registry services. It refused to grant copyright to a reel of microfilm submitted by ISR, although it did so later when the list was resubmitted in a different format. Library officials also pressured ISR to stop mentioning the L. of C. in the firm’s promotions. ISR agreed, but a brochure the firm sent me a couple years later showed a sample star registration certificate in which “Library of Congress” still figured prominently. An ISR spokesperson said I got an old brochure. Uh-huh.
Had you mailed in $35, what you’d have gotten is the aforementioned certificate and a star map with your star ringed in red. According to Skeptical Inquirer magazine, one lucky recipient of such a map, who happened to be an amateur astronomer, found that it had been copied from a standard star atlas. But even though “his” star was located on the map about where the star catalogs said it was supposed to be, it didn’t appear in the atlas because it was too faint. Puzzled, he examined the map under a magnifying glass. The star with the circle around it turned out to be an inkspot.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.