Here is another fun tidbit about the almanac of early US astronomer Benjamin Bannaker (see last week’s post): it features ‘Planet George’. Yes, right under an illustration of how the human body is governed by the constellations of the zodiac, Bannaker has a list of the planets. Take a look in the figure below and you will see it: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, George.
Why George? Well, among the leading astronomers of the late 1700’s (the time when Bannaker was producing his almanac) were the English astronomer William Herschel and his sister Caroline. While examining stars one evening in 1781 William happened across an object that caught his eye—an object whose position relative to the other stars changed from night to night. Herschel had discovered a planet—the first new planet ever to be discovered. Herschel became famous because of this, and was given a large monetary reward by King George III of England. (This was the same King George III against whom Britain’s American colonists were fighting a War of Independence.) Herschel decided the new planet would be named “George” in honor of the king. And thus for a while we had Planet George, and thus Bannaker’s list of planets.
However, the rest of the world was unimpressed with the idea of “Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn George”. Following the ancient tradition of the planets bearing the names of the Greek and Roman gods, astronomers eventually settled on the name “Uranus”, after the god of the sky.* Schoolboys have been making jokes about seeing Uranus ever since. So have plenty of adults. By the way, if you are ever around an astronomer and you get the urge to make a “Uranus joke,” rest assured that the astronomer has heard it already… many, many, many times. The world will be no worse off if you choose not to make the joke. Make a comment about Planet George instead!
*Many of my students at Jefferson Community & Technical College here in Louisville, Kentucky, have commented that they feel that this was not right. In the opinion of these students, Herschel discovered the planet, so Herschel should have gotten to name it. And thus it should rightly be named ‘George’ still.