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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Planets and Their Names—a Few Stories About How We Decide to Label the Skies

A pregnant woman digs her nails into the (supposedly) comforting arm of her husband and, in a howl of pain, declares the name of their new baby boy. The husband decides against protest this time, and so Champe is born.

That’s how I got my name. Two parents, a debate, and then not much of one. But what about the planets? Who names them if not ballooning mothers in fits of birthing rage?

Well, the planets visible to the naked eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—have all been known since ancient times. We’re not exactly sure who first took notice of their peculiar glimmers in the night sky or when they did so, but their names came about in simple enough ways.

Mercury, formerly Hermes, was named for the messenger of the gods in both Greek and Roman mythology. The Greeks called first dibs, but then their civilization crumbled and the Romans updated the name to suit their own beliefs. Mercury, the planet being the innermost in our solar system, appears to move quickly from night to night, so Mercury the god being the swiftest of his divine counterparts, was an apt namesake.

Venus, the brightest planet in the sky (it’s usually the closest to Earth), was named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

Mars, being red and reminiscent of blood, was named for the Roman god of war.

Jupiter, the biggest object in the sky barring the sun, was named for the Roman king of gods and god of the sky and thunder (why the sun didn’t get this title I’m not quite sure).

Saturn, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, was named first after the Greek god of agriculture, Kronos, and then his Roman equivalent, Saturnus. Saturnus was also the god of time, so it’s possible that the planet was so named because it had the slowest orbit.

BUT, those are all boring. Some old guys looked up and decided this sparkle was this god and that twinkle was that one and so on—no backstory.

Not Uranus, though. We know it as the butt of planetary naming jokes (please forgive me), but its initial name was actually far more cringe-worthy. Imagine the love child of a newly discovered element and a sith lord from a poorly conceived Star Wars spinoff. Got it? How about Georgium Sidus*? Well that’s the name Uranus’ first discoverer proposed for the planet in honor of his king, King George III of England.

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Georgium Sidus Nine Pizzas. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

So for obvious reasons, Georgium Sidus didn’t stick and astronomer Johann Elert Bode proposed Uranus to keep in line with the trend of naming planets after Roman mythology. After about a hundred years, in 1850, Uranus finally caught on.

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Let’s skip Neptune. The story is basically that it was called Neptune.

Now Pluto, alas no longer an official planet, has perhaps the most interesting tale of the bunch. Many names were suggested after its discovery in 1930: Lowell, Atlas, Artemis, Perseus, Vulan, Tantalus, Idana, Cronus, Zymal, even Minerva. Pluto didn’t emerge as a contender until Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old from Oxford, England, proposed the name to her grandfather, Falconer Madan (a name itself worthy of planetary status). He passed the name along to American astronomer friends across the pond and the rest is history.

So an 11-year-old-girl, instead of naming a goldfish or a dog or a stuffed teddy bear, named a planet. She believed her voice mattered as much as the next girl’s and now a giant floating space rock 7.5 billion kilometers away bears the title she decided to bestow upon it. In light of news about a potential Plutonian replacement, Planet Nine, may this information serve as confirmation that you, too, could leave your signature on the stars.

Cast your vote for Planet Nine’s potential name here.


*Georgium Sidus is Latin for “The Georgian Planet”


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