Calvin Physics Prof Names Asteroid


Asteroid Banneker, discovered in 2005 by Calvin professor of physics Larry Molnar and approved for naming last winter, draws its moniker from an African American man who lived from 1731 to 1806 and became an amateur astronomer at the age of 57.

Benjamin Banneker also wrote a series of almanacs that were among the best-selling books of their day. People who knew Banneker said that throughout his life he was curious and observant of the natural world around him, seeking understanding in a scientific way.

“In his later years,” added Molnar, “when he had a telescope to work with, he enjoyed spending long nights just viewing the heavens. His Christian faith was important to him, as was his sense of justice. His schooling and his curiosity were limited by the rigors of being a poor farmer. His opportunities were limited by his color.”

Banneker’s connections to Maryland were what first led Molnar to investigate the possibility of naming the asteroid in his honor. Molnar grew up not far from Banneker’s home and was familiar with Banneker’s name. “In some ways he’s still a local hero,” said Molnar.

In naming the asteroid for Banneker, Molnar worked closely with the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Baltimore on an appropriate citation. When asteroid names are sent to the International Astronomy Union, which gives them a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, the information included becomes permanently associated with the name.

Molnar’s citation for Asteroid Banneker reads: “Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a freeborn African American farmer, clockmaker, writer, and scientist. Self-taught in mathematics and astronomy, he wrote six published almanacs that sold throughout the mid-Atlantic region. He assisted in the 1791 survey of the Federal Territory (the District of Columbia).”