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November 30, 2015

PARODY? THESE DAYS, WHO CAN TELL? Before we set up colonies on Mars, we need to discuss renaming its moons: Keeping Phobos and Deimos, which means ‘fear’ and ‘terror’, implies it’s totally cool to demonize our neighbor in the sky.

The naming of celestial bodies is currently highly regulated, overseen by the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, a branch of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). But back before the IAU there was a wild and wooly era of naming essentially by whim, the whim of whoever was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

In the case of Mars, that was Asaph Hall, the American astronomer who discovered the moons, cracked open a bottle of Champagne and decided on a pair of deities who embody panic/fear (Phobos) and terror/dread (Deimos).

These names strike very dark chords. Anyone at all familiar with epic poetry (the kind written here on Earth), knows what I mean. The words behind the names of the deities – phobos and deos (deimos is a poetic form of deos) – crop up hundreds of times in Homer’s Iliad, usually in depictions of brutal combat, explicit and grotesquely violent depictions in which, for example, a spear takes out an eye, the eye falls to the ground, the warrior topples onto his own eye. Whoa.

The words essentially form the infrastructure for the barbaric violence in the Iliad. And names matter. Is it really possible that we haven’t complained about the names? That no petitions are circulating demanding a softening of the names? We are basically implying, by doing nothing, that panic and terror are perfectly acceptable as appellations for our next-door neighbors in the sky.

If nothing else, we should be thinking of the children who will someday grow up to be Mars colonists. No one currently bats an eye when an adult leads a child out into the backyard to admire a planet orbited by panic and terror.

Most amusingly, the piece never mentions that Mars is named after, well, Mars.