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Nit Pickering

Dave North


It's both better and worse than I thought!

This tale wanders around a little, so bear with me. It visits some interesting places.

Not long after the last issue hit the stands, I got an email from our own redoubtable Bob Garfinkle (author of Starhopping and other good stuff) who knows about as much about the lunar nomenclature as anyone, or more. He took me to task for saying William Pickering had been wiped off the Moon - his information indicated that was not the case.


First, there ain't no crater named for Bill Pickering in Rukl. Though there is a Pickering, it's named for Edward Pickering, a very different person.

Second, there are plenty of references that indicate he got eradicated, including this gem from Jeff Medkeff that tells succinctly why I referred to him as a "goof" last month:

"Messier A was formerly named after ... the crackpot William Henry Pickering. This Pickering was a prolific source of imaginary observations and false scientific claims from the late 1800's through the end of his career; he published extensively on the vegetation patterns that only he could see on the moon, on the weather patterns and climate of the moon, and on many other remarkable subjects. He was also involved in malfeasance at Harvard University. He also claimed to be the discoverer of Pluto. (This list could go on and on.) Practically the only credible observation he made was the discovery of Phoebe. (However, he claimed to have discovered several satellites of Saturn that turn out not to exist!)

"The currently named crater Pickering (at about 2S, 7E) is named after Edward Charles Pickering, Director of Harvard Observatory etc.

"William Henry was Edward Charles' younger brother." A quick word about Ed: though he was a careful and rational scientist, probably the smartest thing he ever did was hire some cheap help to speed up his work analyzing bucketloads of stars. Cheap? Well, yeah. Women to be exact.

Among them was Annie Jump Cannon.

Oh, that was Ed Pickering! Yup. And in a weird kind of justice, most people will recognize Annie Cannon, but forget who got her into the business. Fair enough.

But let's get back to his shiftless brother.

First, for better or worse, the arbitration of names on the Moon (and lots of other places) is determined by the International Astronomical Union, often at incredibly boring meetings around the world. At one such in Hamburg in 1964 they dropped W. Pickering and renamed it Messier A. This is half of the fascinating double crater that, if you haven't seen it, you certainly should. Messier is the perfect name for it!

So far, so good.

But a close look will show us that somewhere in there, E. Pickering became just plain old Pickering. Hmm.

On top of that, Bob referred me to a United States Geological Survey web page, that indicates that the current crater Pickering (remember, not the same as the current Messier A) is named for both Ed and Bill Pickering!


So okay, USGS thinks that, but who are they? Not that I could get anything out of the IAU website - it's a pathetic nothing you could have slapped together in ten minutes. However, if you fish around for a while, it refers back to USGS.

What's up with that?

So I opine to Bob that USGS is a neat organization and everything, but doesn't IAU determine these things?

Turns out that's both yes and no. IAU has done a really lousy job of maintaining nomenclature for many years, but finally gave up and just dropped the whole thing on USGS. So now, though IAU is officially the arbitrator, the people who actually publish the results (as best they can be determined) is the Flagstaff office of the Geological Survey!

Talk about nepotism - Pickering had a tight association there in the days of Lowell (another creative observer).

So, if you want to stop there, that's the final word and I print a retraction. But what's the fun in that? Off we go to the USGS website.

Digging a little deeper we run into a problem. The reference for the (current) Moon crater Pickering is identical to the reference to the Mars crater Pickering (both named for both Pickerings). But even weirder, the date listed for the naming is 1935.

This is patently impossible, since it was clearly Ed Pickering's crater until the 1960s. Heck, I have IAU listings that show that!

Not only is the information wrong, it's pretty clear that some cut'n'paste has been going on.

So I ask Bob about that, and it turns out that the database currently published by USGS is chock full o' errors and inconsistencies. Part of that is due to shoddy work on the part of the IAU before USGS got to it, and now all kinds of people (including Bob) are working to straighten out the mess.

But it is far from straight.

Being an American in the older sense of the word, I don't tend to think something is right just because a bunch of bureaucrats say so, especially when they are obviously wrong in at least part of what they're saying.

So part of the listing is clearly bogus, and on that basis I've decided the entire Pickering reference is suspect.

But I'm going even further than that! If in fact the database is in a state of flux due to accuracy problems (and it sure looks that way to me) I cannot see any reason to consider it to be a final authority - yet.

In fact, I propose that we're in a period where, logically, there is no final authority.

Don't get me wrong here. It may turn out that Bob is right and the IAU did at one time somehow determine that the crater Pickering is named for both of them. In a horse race like this, I'd bet on Bob.

Nevertheless, they've got a bit of work to do to convince me. And even better, as far as I'm concerned changing "Bacon" to "Baco" (as in "Bits") is probably just another blunder, and I shall henceforth refer to "Bacon" without further kowtowing. Bring back the Serpentine Ridge! Down the drain with Dorsa Smirnov.

Take that, IAU!

And let's hope for both clarity and some esthetic sense from USGS.

Generally, they've done pretty well.


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