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.