In 2008, research scientist Travis Metcalfe launched the Pale Blue Dot Project that allowed anyone to adopt a star for $10. All proceeds go to astronomy research. The low costs that undercut for-profit competitors brought significant attention.
It took a few years until things really exploded.
In 2014, while fighting raged in Ukraine, some politically active Ukrainian astronomers adopted a star and decided to call it “Putin Is a Dickhead.”
In a new research paper outlining the project’s lifespan, Metcalfe explained exactly what happened next.
“A political group in Ukraine had adopted a star under the controversial name through [a reseller],” Metcalfe wrote, “and then began publicizing it through social media in late June 2014. By early July, the insult had gone viral, with an image of the Ukrainian ‘Certificate of Adoption’ guiding supporters to the Pale Blue Dot Project.”
The newly politicized star made headlines around the world, including right in Moscow.
“On the morning of July 4, I received a telephone call from a reporter at the Moscow Times asking for comment.,” Metcalfe explained. “I told him ‘Free speech is now written in the stars. We have no plans to censor any of these star adoptions. We appreciate the support for science.'”
If you’ve read anything about the notorious Russian trolls that proliferate through the English-language Internet, what happened next might not be much of a surprise.
“Several patriotic Russians were disappointed with our decision, and made personal threats against me,” Metcalfe wrote. “Who knew that crowdfunding for science could be so dangerous?”
Before he ever experienced a virtual run-in with Putin supporters, Metcalfe met with another enemy: Carl Sagan’s lawyers.
Pale Blue Dot is the name of Sagan’s famous 1994 book on the future of human space travel. In 2009, Metcalfe received a cease and desist letter from Sagan’s lawyers demanding an end to the use of his copyright.
It took a month of work from a lawyer for Metcalfe to rid himself of the “bogus claim to the phrase.”
Read the full paper here:
Photo via ESO/Wikipedia (CC BY 4.0)