In A Nutshell
The name of Uranus is probably the first science joke any of us learned. That wasn’t always its name, though. It wasn’t firmly established for 70 years after its discovery. William Herschel originally proposed naming the planet “Georgium Sidus” (“George’s Star”) after King George III. The name was even acknowledged by the Crown, getting Herschel an appointment as the king’s own astronomer. But many weren’t happy with the deviation from the naming traditions that had been set in place, and by 1850, Uranus (properly pronounced YOOR-un-us) was re-named.
The Whole Bushel
German astronomer, composer, and musician William Herschel was looking through his backyard telescope on March 31, 1781, when he saw something a bit strange. Originally thinking it was a comet, calculations suggested otherwise and he was credited for discovering the first new planet in the solar system in a long time.
It was, of course, the planet we now call Uranus. The previously discovered planets were all named for gods from Roman mythology: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It seems logical that the new planet would be given a suitably god-like (if not endlessly amusing) name, but at the time of its discovery, there were no official methods in place for naming discoveries as big as this one.
With the support of members of the Royal Society, Herschel named the new planet for his sovereign, George III. The new planet was dubbed “Georgium Sidus,” but it wasn’t without something of an ulterior motive that Herschel named his planet after the king. With music and entertaining taking up much of his time, that didn’t leave much room for his true passion—astronomy. Herschel had hoped that his tribute to the king wouldn’t go unnoticed, and it didn’t. He became the official and personal astronomer to the royal family, installed at Windsor for a meager salary that nonetheless allowed him to pursue his main passion.
Not everyone was thrilled with the idea of adding “Georgium Sidus” to the list of planets, though, with astronomers and scientists pointing out that it didn’t exactly fit with the naming scheme that had already been established. It was Johann Bode, another astronomer, that suggested the name of Uranus to stay more in line with the theme that was going on. (He missed the mark a little bit.)
Uranus, more commonly spelled “Ouranos,” was a Greek god, not a Roman one as the deities that gave their names to the other planets. The persona of the sky, Ouranos was the father of the Titans and the giants, castrated by his sons as payback for imprisoning their brothers inside Gaia, their mother. In Rome his character was slightly different; he was identified with Aion, the god of time everlasting.
But the popularity of the name “Uranus” didn’t really catch on until around 1850, 70 years after it was discovered and well after Herschel’s death. Before that, many non-British astronomers were simply calling the new planet “Herschel,” after its discoverer. The Royal Academy of Prussia was already calling it “Uranus” early in the 1800s, but it wasn’t a widely used name.
Today, there are official procedures for naming in place to make sure that confusion doesn’t happen again. The International Astronomical Union was founded in 1919, and among its responsibilities is the naming of all celestial bodies. Astronomers that discover new planets, asteroids, moons, or comets can submit a suggestion, but in the end, it’s all down to the IAU and their established naming conventions.
And when it comes down to Uranus’s official name, if you can’t say it without smirking, you’re saying it wrong. NASA has stated that the official, correct, boring old way to pronounce the planet’s name is YOOR-un-us.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Hubble Space Telescope
Cornell: Who named the planets and who decides what to name them?
Smithsonian: The Georgian Planet: A Case of Clever Marketing
Space.com: Who Discovered Uranus (and How Do You Pronounce It)?
A System of Geography, by Thomas Ewing