How Did Uranus Get Its Name?


How Did Uranus Get Its Name

The name of the planet Uranus is the butt of many jokes. It’s less amusing when using the preferred pronunciation (YOOR-ə-nəs), but the yoo-RAY-nəs pronunciation is also acceptable. How did Uranus get its name? Basically, it’s a matter of its discoverer not giving it a suitable one and then astronomers favoring “Uranus” over all of the other suggestions.

William Herschel
William Herschel (1738-1822) English astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus.

The Discovery of Uranus

Before its discovery as a planet, astronomers thought Uranus was a star. It’s visible to the eye, but very dim and moves too slowly for a recognizable orbit. Hipparchus likely recorded it in his star catalog in 128 BC, leading to its inclusion in Ptolemy’s Almagest in the 2nd century AD. English astronomer John Flamsteed observed it at least six times in 1690, identifying it as 34 Tauri. French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier observed it several times between 1750 and 1769.

When Sir William Herschel saw Uranus in March of 1781, he reported it as a comet. Herschel was using a homemade 6.2-inch reflecting telescope and compared the position of the body against the parallax of fixed stars. While Herschel described his discovery as a comet, the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne observed that the body had no tail, like you expect from a comet. Maskelyne and other astronomers suspected it was a planet. Finally, in 1783, Herschel acknowledged to the Royal Society that he had discovered a planet. In recognition of the discovery, King George III offered Herschel an annual stipend of £200, providing he move to Windsor and let the Royal Family peer through his telescopes.

The Naming of Uranus

Herschel called his new planet Georgium Sidus (George’s Star), in honor of his patron, King George III. While astronomers in Britain didn’t have a problem with the name, it did not go over well elsewhere and people offered alternatives. Swedish astronomer Erik Prosperin suggested the names Cybele, Astraea, and Neptune. While rejected, Cybele and Astraea became names of asteroids and the next discovered planet was Neptune. French astronomer Jérôme Lalande proposed that the planet be named Herschel. Other names that were proposed and rejected included Transaturnis, Hypercronius, Neptune George III, Neptune Great Britain, Austräa (a goddess in Ovid’s works), and Minerva (Roman goddess of wisdom and justice).

German astronomer Johann Elert Bode proposed the name Uranus in March 1782. He argued that the name followed the mythology of the other planet names, as Uranus was the father of Saturn, similar to Saturn being the father of Jupiter. Exactly why Bode proposed the Latinized name Uranus over the Greek name for the god of the sky (Ouranus) is unclear. Also, it’s unclear why Bode did not use the Roman name for the god, Caelus, in keeping the with the Roman names of the other planets.

One of Bode’s Royal Academy colleagues was Martin Klaproth. Klaproth had just discovered a new chemical element. He named the new element uranium in favor of Bode’s name for the planet. Finally, in 1850, the HM Nautical Almanac Office officially named the planet Uranus in 1850, switching from the previous official name of Georgium Sidus.

Other Names for the Planet Uranus

Of course, the planet still has other names in different languages. Its name translates as the “sky king star” in Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. In Mongolian, the means “King of the Sky.” While its official name in Thai is Dao Yurenat, which means Uranus, another name is Dao Maruettayu (Star of Myrtu or Death Star). The planet’s Hawaiian name is Heleʻekala, which means “Herschel.”

References

  • Bode, Johann Elert (1784). Von dem neu entdeckten Planeten. bey dem Verfasser [etc.] doi:10.3931/e-rara-1454
  • Dreyer, J. L. E. (1912). The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel. Vol. 1. Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society. ISBN 978-1-84371-022-6.
  • Gingerich, O. (1958). “The Naming of Uranus and Neptune, Astronomical Society of the Pacific Leaflets, Vol. 8, No. 352, p.9”. Leaflet of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 8 (352): 9. Bibcode:1958ASPL….8….9G

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