Have you ever seen the constellation named ‘The Tyrants’, spanning the stars Robespierre and Kubla Khan, stringing together Hitler, Mussolini and Attila along the way? Or how about the stars Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt in the constellation ‘United States’? And then there’s the stars Stalin, Lenin and Tolstoi sharing the constellation ‘Russia’….
You’ve seen all of these stars before, you’ve just never heard them called these names. Good thing A.P. Herbert isn’t around anymore to mourn the total oblivion of his plan for renaming the constellations. In 1944, the eccentric Englishman published ‘A Better Sky, or, Name This Star’, a book in which he expounded his proposal to change the names of stars and constellations in order for them to be more recognisable and easier to learn for the contemporary British student.
In 1944, the British government still had other things to worry about than renaming the heavens. Reviewing Mr Herbert’s book in a 1944 issue of The Observatory magazine, G.K. McArthur, retired Instructor-Commander in the Royal Navy, writes: “Should not an attempt be made to persuade the schools to include elementary astronomy and navigation in the curriculum? Here is an opportunity for a keen navigator and zealous reformer like Mr. Herbert; perhaps a more valuable exercise for his brilliant powers than hoisting Hitler and Mussolini with other mortals into the sky.”
Mr Herbert’s attempt to rename the stars was not the first one – equally unsuccesful attempts have been made to change them to the names of Christian apostles, slugs, ships and planes, apparently. Nevertheless, Alan Patrick Herbert can still be remembered for other things: he was a writer, humorist and law reformer, serving in the House of Commons for 15 years and in the Royal Navy during the First and Second World Wars.
He campaigned for modernising the laws on divorce, obscenity and alcohol licensing – once famously taking the House of Commons to court for the (illegal) sale of alcohol on its premises. As a writer, he is best remembered for his ‘Misleading Cases’, satirical law reports of fictional court cases, often written from the point of view of serial litigator A.P. Haddock, and adapted for television by the BBC. He also wrote eight novels and 15 plays, including a light opera.
This map of the heavens renamed has the following constellations –
Canada, The Tyrants, Europe Regained, China, The Airman, The Music Maker, Science, The Gorgeous East, The Story-Teller, The Poet, The Painter, The Islands, The Jester, South America, Australasia, The Player, The Doctor, Russia, The Philosopher, Great Britain, The Statesman, The Soldier, The Traveller, The Sailor, South Africa, The Rebels, The Heroes, King’s Cross, The Children’s Corner, The Women, United States.
I recognise Great Britain as Ursa Major and I suspect The Sailor to be Orion, but that’s as far as it goes, at first glance. A larger map can be viewed by clicking on it, but the names of the individual stars remain not entirely legible.