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
Two guesses, Jackson. Read the International Star Registry brochure carefully and you'll find that all they promise to do is "register" a star in the name of your choice. This means they write it down in a book. Needless to say, you can get this done for a lot less than $35. Matter of fact, I'm thinking of opening Cecil's Cut-Rate Star Registry and Soft Cloth Car Wash, which for ten bucks will register stars and give you a long-lasting shine besides.
Unfortunately, no matter who you pay your money to the only way your star will be "internationally recognized" is if you tell your brother-in-law about it in Tobago. The only accepted authority on star naming is the International Astronomical Union, which has no connection with the International Star Registry or any other such outfit. The IAU calls attempts to exploit the general ignorance on this subject a "deplorable commercial trick."
The thing that gives (or used to give--see below) International Star Registry an ersatz aura of respectability is the claim that they're going to put your star name in a book they're 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 any damn thing 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 recently sent me shows a sample star registration certificate in which "Library of Congress" still figures prominently. An ISR spokesperson says I got an old brochure. Right.
Should you mail in $35, what you'll get is the aforementioned certificate and a star map with your star ringed in red. 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. Figures.
Why is the sea salty? --Listener, Ed Busch Talk Show, Dallas
I will have you know that this question was dealt with by no less an authority than Sir Edmond Halley, better known as Mr. Comet. Sir Ed, being pretty much a universal genius and apparently having a couple hours to kill one day, came up with the following solution in 1715. Ed's idea was that salt and other minerals were carried into the sea by rivers, presumably having first been leached out of the ground by rain runoff. Over time seawater evaporated to create the rain clouds that replenished the rivers, but the salt was left behind, till eventually the oceans reached their present degree of salinity. As proof Halley noted that of the handful of lakes in the world without outlets, such as the Dead Sea or the Caspian Sea, all were salty or brackish.
Halley went on from this to suggest a cockeyed theory of how you could calculate the age of the earth based on measurements of the increasing saltiness of the ocean. Scientists regard this brainstorm today with an expression of pain. His explanation for why the salt is there in the first place, however, remains pretty much the last word on the subject.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.