Help Name Pluto’s Newly Discovered Moons

Pluto is one of the little mysteries of our solar system. An icy dwarf planet far from Earth, it’s never been studied up close. The best scientists have been able to do is to examine it with the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the coolest scientific instruments ever invented.

In 2011 and 2012, they discovered two new moons around Pluto, bringing the total number of its satellites to five. Right now they’re known by the boring scientific designations S/2011 (134340) 1 and S/2012 (134340) 1. Most astronomers call them by the shorter yet equally boring nicknames P4 and P5. Now an online poll on the website Pluto Rocks!, run by Dr. Mark Showalter of the P4/P5 Discovery Team, is letting YOU help decide what to name them.

All the choices come from Greek and Roman mythology but one has a special significance for science fiction fans – Vulcan. None other than William Shatner has gotten behind the push to name one of the moons after Mr. Spock’s home world. He’s urging fans via his twitter feed to vote for Vulcan. On his own twitter feed, Leonard Nimoy said, “‘Vulcan’ is the logical choice. LLAP.” LLAP stands for “Live long and prosper,” of course.

According to the current tally, Vulcan is way ahead, with Cerberus and Styx neck-and-neck for second place. I decided to release my inner Trekkie and voted for Vulcan. Since there are two moons to be named, you get to go back and vote again. I’ll be voting for Thanatos. It’s way behind but it’s the coolest name on there after Vulcan.

P4 is Pluto’s smallest moon, measuring an estimated 8-21 miles across and orbits Pluto in about 31 days. P5 is 6-16 miles across and orbits Pluto in 20 days. Little is known about their physical makeup although it is thought they are a combination of water ice, other frozen elements and molecules, and small bits of rock.

While astronauts and space tourists won’t be getting to these destinations anytime soon, it’s nice to know that you had a part in naming them. Voting ends at noon EST on Monday, February 25.

[Photo courtesy NASA via the Hubble Space Telescope]

Sexy goddess bares all in Boston

The ancient goddess of love, sex, and beauty is making an appearance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is a new exhibition examining one of the most popular ancient goddesses and her place in the Classical world. More than 150 ancient works of art are on display, including famous pieces such as the Knidia, a life-size sculpture of Aphrodite made by the 4th-century BC Greek artist, Praxiteles. Another interesting piece is the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a reclining figure who from one side looks like a voluptuous woman, and from the other like a man.

The exhibition traces Aphrodite’s sexy origins in the Near East and the place of her cult in Greek and Roman society. Aphrodite was a Greek goddess who was adopted into the Roman pantheon as Venus. She was the symbol of romantic love and ideal beauty. She also oversaw marriage, an odd choice since many of the myths surrounding her involve her cheating on her husband, the blacksmith god Hephaistos (Vulcan). Men worshiped her because she aroused male virility.

Being in charge of such important aspects of life made Aphrodite extremely popular. She was the patron goddess of Pompeii. Interestingly, Ramsay MacMullen in his Paganism in the Roman Empire points out that altars in private homes in Pompeii were more often dedicated to Foruna, Vesta, and Bacchus than Aphrodite. Perhaps because love received so much public worship, people felt they needed to give good luck, the home, and drinking some attention. They can be related, after all!

McMullen’s book (which I highly recommend) also touches on various ways the Romans worshipped Venus, including picnicking in the orchards around her sanctuary in Cnidus, and wild processions where a woman playing Venus led a string of dancing children playing Cupid. She and the other deities were very much part of daily life.

The exhibition also looks at related figures of Classical mythology, such as Aphrodite’s sons Eros (Cupid), the well-endowed Priapus, and Hermaphrodite.

If you want to meet this lovely lady and her interesting offspring, you better hurry. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is only on until February 20, 2012.

Top photo: Fresco of The Judgment of Paris, Roman, Imperial Period, 45–79 A.D. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. © Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Orion’s Belt and one of the best places for looking up

Orion’s Belt is a winter pleasure if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. These stars that tell the tale of the hunter Orion, the love object of Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister, are fairly easy to pick out once someone has shown you where to look.

Over at Jaunted, Kitts Peak National Observatory at Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona is given a heads up as being one fantastic place to see the night sky. The reservation is surrounded by desert, thus has one of the ingredients necessary for stellar star-gazing. No city lights.

Instead, there is a vast sky and a well-organized observatory where the experience is not just a matter of peering in a telescope to see what’s up there up close, but a lesson in how to read star charts and use binoculars to star-gaze as well. Since it’s an hour out of Tuscon, the included boxed dinner is a nice touch. The telescopes are powerful enough to see planets. If you go, one thing to check out is the Advanced Optical Program where you can take CCD images of what you see up there with the observatory’s equipment. [Click here for images.]

Greetings from Crete: The Best of Myths

Ok, so you first heard this myth as a kid: the great King Minos (of Crete) gets a beautiful white bull from the god Poseidon. He’s supposed to sacrifice the bull, but decides he’d kind of like to keep it. And, unsurprisingly, it angers the god. Bad idea.

So the god makes Minos’ wife fall in love with the bull. That’s pretty rough. But, now, here’s where it gets weird. Really, really weird. (But, yes, you did hear this first in your elementary school class, and your parents were glad when you did well in Greek mythology.)

The wife decides she wants the bull. As in: wants to be with the bull. Bad enough to have an architect build a wooden cow for her to squeeze into…so she can have the bull. And she does. And her white bull love child? The Minotaur.

The Minotaur: half-man, half-bull. (The ladies are saying, ‘hey, isn’t that most men?’) He lived in the labyrinth of the famous Minoan palace of Knossos and ate Athenian children every nine years (another story). Until an Athenian, Theseus, came to slay the Minotaur.
I’m not sure what the moral of the story was supposed to be, but I can think of a few. The legend does leave out the later marital problems we assume must have occurred with the royal couple, after the coupling.

When not building crazy sex contraptions for the queen, the architect built Knossos for the king. I’ll give you a dispatch from the ruins of Knossos later this week.