I had not given much thought to how planets and moons were named. I just assumed that there was some scientific body that was authorized by the community of scientists to carry out this task. And while that is the case now, with the International Astronomical Union entrusted to do so, in the early days this naming process seems to have been quite ad hoc and a source of much controversy with egos, self-aggrandizement, and nationalist sentiment all playing roles.
Stephen Case, a historian of astronomy, explains how initially the planets in the Solar System got named after Roman gods but as the numbers of planets proliferated, disputes arose about who got the right to name them, with arguments being proffered for prioritizing the discoverers, starting with what we now know as Neptune. French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, the person usually credited with that discovery, wanted to name it after himself and as part of his campaign, suggested that the planet we know as Uranus and that had been found earlier should be named Herschel after its discoverer, William Herschel. Herschel himself had named it Georgium Sidus after King George III, the king who had recently lost the British colonies in North America and is sometimes referred to as ‘Mad King George’.
It was William’s son John Herschel, himself an eminent astronomer, who came up with the system that we have today that avoided the use of personal names. He used the discovery of the moons of planets as his starting point.
Then Herschel happened upon a plan to avoid this ‘confounded scrape’ altogether. He realised that he could do a clever end-run around the dilemma by moving to establish a nomenclature not for planets but for their moons instead. This ploy worked, and it remains the basis of naming satellites in the outer solar system.
In fact, what Herschel’s names for the moons did was help cement a nomenclatural system built on classical mythology, and ensure that names such as ‘Herschel’ or ‘Le Verrier’ had no place in the skies. Sponsored by the Duke of Northumberland, the Cape Results delivered Herschel’s new nomenclatural system as part of an elaborate and impressive astronomy tome, presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1847, and shipped out to observatories and astronomers all over the world.
Herschel’s plan worked. The naming scheme for Saturn’s moons was immediately adopted by other astronomers. When the astronomer William Lassell (1799-1880) discovered another satellite of Saturn in 1848, he named it Hyperion, following the titanic naming convention. And, since then, all moons discovered around Saturn have followed this basic scheme, being adjusted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) only recently to allow for giants from other mythologies due to the number of newly discovered satellites.
As far as the controversy over Le Verrier’s planet, though ‘Neptune’ was already winning out over the name ‘Le Verrier’ by the time the Cape Results was published, the new names for Saturn’s moons helped to tip the scales of popular opinion firmly against contemporary, nationalistic names in the sky. Herschel’s names were a turning point in solar-system nomenclature. The moons of Saturn became an antithesis to earlier attempts to recognise specific individuals or patrons in the heavens. Herschel used Saturn’s moons as a means of de-personalising the heavens at a time when international tempers were flaring. The gesture carried extra weight in the astronomical community as well because it came from Herschel – the only person outside the Neptune debate who had a personal stake in the issue of naming planets. It was certainly lost on no one that by helping to establish a mythological nomenclatural system, Herschel was giving up any chance that Uranus would continue to be referred to by the name his father had given it.
This move to avoid nationalist sentiment taking over the system almost threatened to get derailed when some moons were given the names of fairies and sprites from Shakespeare’s plays, a move that was described by some as a “stunning act of Anglo-American cultural imperialism”. But it was successfully argued that the Bard essentially belonged to the world, not to any nation.
As the Shakespeare scholar Todd Borlik has pointed out, the triumph of Romanticism throughout Europe by the mid-1800s meant that Shakespeare (though not so much Pope) was seen as a universal rather than particularly English genius. Because of the Bard’s immense cultural appeal during this period, Herschel’s suggested names transcended cultural or nationalistic boundaries and allowed him the opportunity, whether he intended it or not, to enshrine English literature around the planet first named for an English king.
Science history is pretty fascinating stuff, showing how personal ambitions and national pride compete with dispassionate arguments.
Interesting article, thanks for that.
Leaving aside the planets, the Brits did succeed in getting one officially accepted star name: Cor Caroli, “the heart of Charles”. I believe this is the only star named for a person — however, historical sources differ on whether that person is Charles I or Charles II.
As for J. Herschel, Le Verrier, and Adams (as well as Galle and d’Arrest, the first astronomers to identify Neptune visually) they are all commemorated by named craters on the moon.
…oops, I forgot Barnard’s star, which requires a telescope to see, and has no other convenient name besides that of its discoverer. No doubt there are others that don’t come immediately to mind.
So by universal he meant European?
There’s a lot of Glieses and Messiers…
The rules are apparently different when it comes to comets (see guideline 2).
Naming usually involves cultural bias. Perhaps one can excuse the early Euro-centric naming of planets (which now includes all ideologies) because of who had telescopes and made discoveries. But the idea that constellations on get Euro-centric names is appalling since every continent and their cultures saw the same stars.
People south of the equator in South America, Africa and Oceania long had names for the most visible four star constellation long before white people sailed south. Ginan was the name given it by the Wardaman people of Australia, and is now the IAU’s official name of what christian cultural imperialists misnamed the “southern cross”.
And I’m kicking myself I forgot Wolf 359. Call myself a trekkie…
The place to really look for people’s names, though, is the moon’s craters and the asteroid belt.
file thirteen says
Ginan was the name given it by the Wardaman people of Australia, and is now the IAU’s official name of what christian cultural imperialists misnamed the “southern cross”.
It’s still named the Southern Cross. Ginan is the new name of the fifth brightest star in it, formerly called Epsilon Crucis.
file thirteen says
It’s still named the Southern Cross
I just learned it’s actually Crux.
My point was, people in the southern hemisphere had names for stars and constellations for thousands of years before white people showed up. Their names should be used (re: Uluru, not “ayer’s rock”) since they named them first. If naming rights apply to science and observation in the north, why not the south?
Crux was visible and named by the ancients Greeks thousands of years ago, though they considered it part of the constellation Centaurus.
I appreciate that the modern convention has been updated to include mythological names of cultures besides ancient Europe.
file thirteen says
And stars are being renamed now to honour that. Why are you making out that there’s been an injustice? Naming stars isn’t like the renaming of indigenous places. You don’t have to visit the Southern Hemisphere to view half the sky. From the equator you can see all but the circumpolar stars over the course of a year.
consciousness razor says
It wouldn’t have to be though, would it?
Wouldn’t you find it unnecessarily biased, if practically everything in the sky had a name connected with ancient Chinese mythology, let’s say? Think about what that would mean for you, as an Anglophone. Lots of things you probably can’t easily pronounce. If you try to write something down, it’s not quite the real Chinese name that it’s supposed to have but some sort of approximation or substitute for that. You may not already be familiar with the history or mythological literature associated with it. And so forth.
To some extent at least, you need to adopt lots of things from another culture/language, while your native culture’s names and stories and so forth are ignored, disregarded, treated as “unofficial,” etc. Injustice may be too strong of a word, but at least you should be able to imagine that it can be sort of a hassle, an annoyance, or something like that. And toward people who don’t regard it as a problem, or those who never thought to ask you for your input in the first place, it can be a source of resentment.
Seems rather flimsy. Europe is nowhere near the equator. And for that matter, most of Africa is in the Northern hemisphere too. So is all of Asia, including the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian peninsula. And so is North and Central America, the Caribbean, and a decent chunk of South America.
But despite the talk of “the South,” the relevant point is that even in the Northern hemisphere — which, again, has all of those different places in it that I just mentioned — there’s no good reason why we should just use a bunch of European names (primarily Greek and Roman), to the exclusion of everyone else in other cultures, linguistic groups, and so forth. It’s not like Europe is where most of the people are. It’s not like these other places didn’t also have names for them. What it’s really like is giving Europe special treatment.
file thirteen says
@consciousness razor #11
consciousness razor says
Yes, your comment #11 was nonsense. However, what I said wasn’t. Glad we sorted that out.
file thirteen says
@consciousness razor #14
Yes, I saw that I’d mistakenly put 11 rather than 12, but once it’s posted what can you do? Your post however was such utter rubbish that it’s not worth pointing out the flaws that should be obvious to everyone else. I guess that means you “win”. Feel free to have the last word.
Messier and Glieses are catalogs and aren’t official names. In Messier’s case, it’s a catalog of fuzzy objects in the northern hemisphere that aren’t comets. It’s only known because it contains a lot of amateur astronomy’s favorite targets. Plus, there’s one night a year when they’re all in the sky when highly motivated astronomers try to get pictures of all of them. Otherwise, nobody outside of Astronomy departments would call the Andromeda Galaxy M31. It’s also pretty ironic that a group of objects that are the closest thing to being named for somebody was originally compiled to exclude them as the one of only objects that get named for their discoverer.
That being said, Uranus is a colossally bad name. George is a terrible name for a planet, but even that would have been preferable. As such, whenever the IAU does something I don’t like, I usually refer to the act as “from the people who gave you Uranus”.
@ 8 file thirteen
Yes Crux, or Crux Australis. Which is Latin for…*drumroll*… “Southern Cross”.
@ 12 consciousness razor
The vast majority of named objects in the night sky have Arabic names. Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. (In fact they sound kind of cool. Where else you gonna get Betelgeuse and Aldebaran?)
@ 16 drken
Cute. Except the IAU was founded in 1919, and the name Uranus was bestowed by Johann Elert Bode -- who died in 1826.
Incidentally, further to the discussion between Intransitive & file thirteen, there has been a conscious move by the IAU toward more inclusive naming. Solar system bodies discovered this century include Quaoar (Native American Tongva creator deity), Makemake (creator god of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island), Haumea (Hawaiian goddess of childbirth), etc.
Intransitive and CR, dear god, such performative wokeness.
Almost all star names that are bright enough to be notable have a common name derived from… Arabic. No one gives a shit. Even after the Arabic world declined as a centre of astronomy, the emerging tradition of European astronomy greats adhered to those names in acknowledgement of the work done by the earlier greats in astronomy.
“Apalling”? Jesus christ, get your hand off it.
Also, what’s so bad about the name Uranus? It is usually pronounced ‘YOO-r*n*s’ (where the * is a schwa) by people familiar with astronomy. Some will argue is not much better as that pronunciation rhymes with urine, but it is a damn sight better than the ‘your anus’ used by astronomical noobs.
consciousness razor says
That’s true, of course. I had in mind planets and moons in our solar system, as well as constellations. I do take your point, although it is still remarkable that we can cite a bunch of examples from only one additional language (Arabic).
Besides, to many people who aren’t astronomers — and perhaps many who are — planets, moons and constellations are especially interesting and culturally significant. Aldebaran, not so much. (Personally, I think it’s a perfectly cromulent star.) That one happens to be in the constellation Taurus, between Orion and the Pleiades.
I can’t believe in a post about astronomical naming I forgot this piece
Q: Guess which FTB blogger has a solar system body named after them?
A: Yeah, it’s probably who you first thought of. 🙂
@ 20 Holms
Hey Holms, here’s a post just for your reactionary ass.
You criticise a term I didn’t use.
Mate , 100% of people who use “woke” disparagingly are right-wing reactionaries. It’s a tell.
But I didn’t disparage ‘wokeness’, I disparaged ‘performative wokeness’. And, absolute statements such as those beginning with “100% of people …” are almost always wrong.