Sciency Words: Uranus (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 25, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, U is for:

URANUS

I feel really sorry for the planet Uranus.

I’m really sorry, sideways buddy, but they’re not laughing with you. They’re laughing at you.

Rumor has it NASA wants to send a space probe to Uranus in the late 2020’s or early 2030’s. It’ll be the first time we’ve visited an ice giant since the Voyager 2 flybys of Uranus and Neptune, back in the 1980’s. I’m pretty excited about this, but I can’t talk about a Uranus mission without people starting to snicker at me.

So how did the seventh planet of the Solar System end up with such an unfortunate name? Here’s a quick rundown of how this happened:

  • On March 13, 1781, English astronomer William Herschel discovered a new planet beyond the orbit of Saturn.
  • As a good, patriotic Englishman, Herschal named the new planet Georgium Sidis, Latin for “George’s Star,” in honor of King George III (the same King George mentioned in the Declaration of Independence).
  • For obvious reasons, the name Georgium Sidis wasn’t popular outside of England. Several alternatives were proposed, including Herschel, Neptune, and Uranus.
  • Uranus went on to become the most widely used name around the world, until in the mid-1800’s even England officially accepted the name.

In ancient mythology, Uranus was the god of the sky, the father of Saturn and the grandfather of Zeus. He was an extremely important deity, so it made a certain sense to bestow this prestigious name on such a prestigious discovery: the first new planet discovered since ancient times.

German astronomer Johann Elert Bode proposed the name. As a German, he presumably didn’t realize how it would sound in English—or maybe he did know and was deliberately trolling King George! That’s my personal theory.

Whatever Bode’s intentions were, Uranus is now stuck with its name and all the jokes that come with it. Which is a shame. Such a strange and mysterious planet deserves better.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, we’ll be working with volatile chemicals.