WTF Fun Fact 12696 – Uranus’ Original Name

Uranus – everyone’s favorite planet. Or maybe when you hear the name, you instantly roll your eyes knowing that someone’s about to make a terrible joke.

Either way, many of us know that Uranus is the ancient Greek version of the god of the sky and heavens (and it’s technically pronounced ou-ra-nos, though some people even insist it’s urine-us rather than u-anus). But whatever. The point here is that the planet was originally named George.

And not just George, the Georgium Sidus (or Georgian moon/moon of George).

Until English astronomer William Herschel discovered the bright light was a planet in 1781, everyone assumed it was just another star, or perhaps a comet. The object had been seen before and was recorded in John Flamsteed’s catalog of stars (as “34 Tauri, the 34th star of Taurus the Bull”).

The Herschels were an incredible family of amateur astronomers. William’s sister, Caroline, may have been even more talented, and people knew it! In fact, Maskelyne wrote about the important role played by amateur astronomers right after Caroline discovered her first comet. (Caroline even got a job updating Flamsteed’s catalog of stars, the Historia Coelestis Britannica.)

Another fun fact? In the 1800s (and long before and shortly after), science could hardly be done without a rich person’s funding. Herschel wasn’t even considered to be a professional astronomer at the time – he also fell into the ranks of an “amateur.” In fact, the official Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyne, still had to confirm it was a planet before it could be declared one. Even then, it was until astronomer Johann Elert Bode double confirmed it that the object was accepted by a planet by the scientific community (which is how you make it really official, not just “royal official”).

According to NASA, its mistaken identity as a star is understandable. The planet is extremely far from the sun and moves incredibly slowly (so much that half of it is plunged into ice-covered darkness for 21 years at a time). So you’d have to watch the object for decades to notice it even acts like a planet – that’s the kind of dedication required! It’s pretty much invisible to us now because of the light pollution the Earth emits.

But back to the George – Uranus thing.

William Herschel really wanted royal patronage (aka money) to fund his endeavors. So in order to gain favor with King George III, he used his fame as the person who discovered the first new planet since antiquity to advocate for the name George.

But George didn’t exactly fit with the naming scheme astronomers had going on at the time, which was all mythology-based. So in the end, it was Bode who got his way, naming the planet Uranus.

Of course, Herschel got the credit and the benefits that followed. And now we all get to tell Uranus jokes until the end of time (but it’s Bode we have to thank for that). – WTF fun facts

Source: “Venus Meets a Planet Named George” — NASA

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