On this day in 1781, William Herschel discovered the first planet.1 With his discovery, Herschel posed a new challenge for astronomy: What to name new objects in the heavens.
Throughout history, astronomers from all over the world looked to the sky and named the things they saw. The names we use today are the result of cultural history more than anything else. For example, Mars is the name of the red planet in Latin, which was the dominant language of European science. The star Betelgeuse derives its name from Arabic, because of the extensive star catalogs made by Arab astronomers.
With Herschel’s planet, there was no traditional history, so there was much debate over its name. Herschel himself suggested Georgium Sidus or George’s Star, after his King George III. Within a year Herschel was named the King’s Astronomer, so you could understand his reasoning.
But Planet George didn’t take off as a name. Other European nations, particularly the French, weren’t thrilled with having a planet named after an English king. Uranus, the name that eventually stuck, was first suggested by Johann Bode. He argued that planets should follow the tradition of Roman gods, and in Roman mythology, Uranus is the father of Saturn and grandfather of Jupiter. While the rest of the world called the new planet Uranus, Georgium Sidus remained the official name in England until the 1850s.
While Uranus was the first big naming controversy in astronomy, it wasn’t the last. As new planetary bodies were discovered they were typically given Greek or Latin names. But this is a culturally narrow approach given the global diversity of modern astronomy. Thus names like the Latin Ceres and Greek Eris are now joined by the Inuit Sedna, Hawaiian Haumea, and Quaoar of the Tongva.
None of these names are without controversy. The names we create arise out of our cultural traditions and cultural biases, and these are difficult to overcome. The alternative is to stick with some official catalog designation, but these don’t have the same appeal to us. After all, nobody cares about minor planet 134340, but everyone loves Pluto.
Herschel was not the first to observe Uranus. Earlier astronomers noted it, but considered it a star. Herschel was the first to widely disseminate his planetary observations thus Herschel is typically given the credit. ↩︎