Subscribe to new posts by entering your email address.

Solar System Geography: Losing a Planet; Gaining a Bomb

In this article, follow a trail of pigmentation, the starry sky, a Greek god, King George III, Shakespeare, and the atomic bomb. 
(Image of Uranus captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope)
Make it Pretty....and a little radioactive
Uranium has been used since at least the 1st century AD as a yellow coloring agent - especially in ceramics.  However, it had not yet been isolated and discovered to be a separate element. It's discovery by German scientist Martin Klaproth eventually led to the creation of the atomic bomb and the fear of global destruction.  But before that, it's name just caused kids to giggle.  At least the inspiration for uranium's named caused giggles.

Uranus: King George III's Lost Planet
In 1781, "Uranus", the 7th planet, was discovered by British astronomer William Herschel*.  The first planet to be discovered since ancient times*, finding Uranus was big news.  Herschel was even knighted by King George III.  But....Herschel did not originally name the planet "Uranus".  For Herschel, it was "Georgium Sidus," which basically means "George's Star" or "The Star of George." King George III may have been having a hard time with the whole American Revolution thing, but at least he was given a planet. At least until the Germans took it from him.

It Did Bode Well for Tradition
Most people outside of the British Isles were not to happy about looking at a British king's planet. The world map of that day and age already had plenty of British claims.  Besides, every other known planet (except for Earth) had been named after Roman gods.  Enter German scientist Johann Elert Bode. Bode mapped out the orbit of Uranus and proposed renaming the planet, "Uranus."  Rather than a Roman god, Uranus was a Greek god**,  but he was known as "Father Sky" - a fitting name. The new name was more in line with tradition and soon thereafter, "Uranus" became the accepted name. King George III had lost his planet. Britain did not officially accept the new name until the mid-1800s - long after the king's death.

Uranus and Uranium
In 1789, less than a decade after the discovery of Uranus and inspired by his colleague's awesome naming abilities, Klaproth named his recently discovered element "uranium." Thus, a material once used for making pretty yellow hues and inspired by the renaming of a blue planet, was eventually turned into the most powerful weapon ever used.  A tragedy, but not a Shakespearean one.  

Uranus, Moons, Shakespeare
Not going down without a fight, the British once again laid naming claims to Uranus (well, its moons anyways).  In the years and decades after Uranus' finding, it was discovered that the planet had multiple moons.  William Herschel's son, John, took the honor of naming the moons and, like his father, eschewed the Greek and Roman gods.  Instead, he turned to English literature.   While not all of Uranus' moons were discovered during his lifetime, he set the precedent of naming them after characters from the works of Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.  Today, Uranus has 27 documented moons named after these characters.  Someone should make a play about this.

Thanks for reading!

Check out CGP Grey's amazing video on the pronunciation of Uranus!  

*Other astronomers, from many years in the past (including Galileo), had noted the position of Uranus, but had not documented it as a planet.  Most noted it as a star. Also, Herschel was a talented composer. 
**The Roman equivalent of Uranus is Caelus - from where the word "celestial" is derived.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well.. solcelle inverter

    ReplyDelete

Search