The contest's organizers argue that the current name for the creation of the universe is "misleading, ugly and trivializing." Timothy Ferris, a contest judge and the author of six books on astronomy, says Big Bang is ''inappropriately bellicose." It is "perhaps suitable for describing a dormitory brawl," he says, "but less so for the event thought to have spawned the starry skies."
Some astronomers even consider the term sexist and disrespectful. NASA astronomer Steve Maran has said that when he taught astronomy in college, ''every time you mentioned the Big Bang, all sorts of tittering was heard around the room."
The contest itself has created a mild backlash. A number of writers have lampooned the competition, calling it a scientific exercise in political correctness.
"Here come the Bangbusters, also known as the Cosmic Correctness Police," declared Henry Allen, a writer for the Washington Post.
Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times ridiculed the contest, saying: "How can we clean up Big Bang and still call some stars red dwarfs? . . . Tropic of Cancer? Too depressing. Try Tropic of Pretty Serious But Often Curable Carcinoma."
Nonsense, say Ferris and Kelly Beatty, senior editor at Sky & Telescope, the astronomy magazine based in Belmont, Mass., that is sponsoring the contest.
"Political correctness has nothing to do with it," Ferris says. "The term Big Bang is misleading and ugly. We're trying to come up with a name that more accurately describes the theory."
The Big Bang theory states that sometime between 10 billion and 20 billion years ago the universe expanded rapidly out of a microscopic dot that contained all matter and energy.
The theory was proposed by the Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaitre about 60 years ago, and since then a variety of astronomical observations have convinced most scientists that it is essentially correct.
But Ferris says the term Big Bang is misleading because it implies that matter and energy exploded like a bomb into preexisting space.
Actually, the theory says that space itself - not to mention all matter, energy and time - was bound up in the same little speck, which then rapidly expanded. "Then, as now, all space was contained in the cosmos, even when the cosmos was smaller than an atom," Ferris says.
Hugh Downs, the ABC television newsman who is an amateur astronomer, also criticizes the term. "There was no bang. There was no flash," he says. ''Coming up with a better name for it will be a real challenge. But we ought to try."
In fact, the term was coined by the theory's chief opponent, Sir Fred Hoyle, the co-author of the rival "steady-state theory." Hoyle's theory argues that the universe has always existed and will always exist in its present form.
It was during a BBC radio lecture in 1950 that he first used the phrase Big Bang in an attempt to ridicule the opposing theory, then known as the ''standard model."
Although Hoyle's own theory has steadily lost ground during the last 40 years, his scornful label has been embraced by scientists and the public. His simple, pithy phrase captured the popular imagination.
But Ferris, who teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, says Hoyle's term is a "slur" and a "venomous appellation."
"It's as if Darwin's theory of evolution was known as the 'monkey's uncle theory,' " he says.
Ferris came up with the idea for a contest in January while attending the American Astronomical Society meeting in Phoenix. "I was sitting at a conference listening to a talk about the Big Bang theory. The editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine was sitting next to me. I sent him a note saying, 'We should have a contest to rename the Big Bang.' "
The magazine's editors announced the contest, known as "The Big Bang Challenge," in June. All names had to be printed on postcards and postmarked no later than Aug. 31. No prizes are being awarded.
Beatty said one entrant sent in his suggestion on a postcard three feet wide and five feet long. Others have sent in petitions and even book manuscripts describing bizarre theories on the creation of the universe. Entrants range in age from 4 to 92.
Although Beatty declined to discuss particular entries, he said the suggested names ranged from the "patently glib to the excruciatingly detailed." He said they generally fell into several categories.
Some are religious, such as Genesis and Creation.
Others describe the time of the event, such as Day One and the Beginning.
Still others used descriptive terms, such as the First Fireball and the Primordial Poof.
Even the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes has come up with a suggestion. Calvin, a cynical 6-year-old, has proposed "the horrendous space kablooie."
Beatty said the contest's judges - Ferris, Downs and Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan - would winnow their favorites from a list containing all of the names. The judges will then confer by phone, and possibly in person, before announcing the winner during the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, to be held Jan. 11-15 in Washington, D.C.
Ferris said he was well aware that the winning entry may never catch on.
"If a terrific new name is proposed, then it has a chance of being accepted," he said. "But it could also be like changing the name of Sixth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas. Everybody in New York City still calls it Sixth Avenue."