Why Is Uranus So Much Fun To Joke About?

Scientists really want to probe Uranus, according to the recently announced Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine gathered up feedback from researchers at the world’s top universities and research laboratories, and those researchers collectively listed a mission to Uranus as a top scientific priority for the coming decade. The news triggered a flurry of enthusiasm, along with a delighted slew of jokes from science journalists who, if we’re being really honest, live for this sort of thing.

Uranus is the butt of a lot of jokes, and most of them write themselves: there’s a ring around Uranus, and Uranus smells like methane, and so on. As planetary scientist Emily Lakdawalla wrote in 2003, you have to acknowledge the name thing.

“You have to confront the problem directly,” she wrote. “Not to comment on it makes you look either like a clueless idiot or a stuffy, humorless bore.”

But where did the planet get its name in the first place?

It’s Greek To Me

Like every major planet in our solar system, Uranus is named for a god of ancient Greece and Rome (The dwarf planets of the outer solar system, on the other hand, are paying tribute to a much more diverse set of pantheons.)

However, although Uranus follows suit, it’s a notable standout in some ways, too: it’s the only planet that uses the Greek name of a deity, while all the others (except Earth) are named after the Roman versions. Most of those Roman planet name are immediately recognizable to anyone with a grade-school familiarity with classical myths: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and even little Pluto. On the other hand, Uranus is more obscure.

The planet Uranus is named for an ancient Greek sky god, whose name is also – much less entertainingly – spelled Ouranos. If astronomers in the late 1800s had stuck with Roman names, we’d have no Uranus puns today, because the 7th planet would be called Caelus.

He was one of the first generation of gods in the Greek pantheon, who were also some of the least humanlike of the classical gods. When we think about Greek (and later Roman) myths, we often think of a pantheon of gods with very human feelings, desires, and even flaws. But Uranus and his generation were personifications of the most basic elements of reality: concepts like Earth, ocean, and sky; day and night.

The Greek and Roman gods most of us are more familiar with were the Olympians, the children of the Titans Cronos and Rhea. And the Titans came from Uranus (not sorry). Uranus and Gaia, the goddess who represented Earth, fathered the Titans – including Cronos, the father of the Olympian gods led by Zeus. So Uranus is the grandfather of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.

If the original stories about these primordial gods included much character development, those stories have been lost to time. By about the 700s BCE, the start of what we now call the Classical period of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, people didn’t actively worship those primordial, first-generation gods. We don’t find temples of Uranus or the ocean god Pontus in the archaeological record; we don’t find ceramics or frescoes painted with these gods and their adventures. Written records don’t mention rituals dedicated to these gods or tell detailed stories about them.

Which is a pity, when you imagine the stories that could have been told about Uranus.

Thanks, Johann Bode

Astronomer William Herschel discovered our solar system’s 7th planet in 1781. It was up to Herschel to name his discovery, but it took a couple of years for anything to stick. (To… you know… I’m not even going to say it.)

Herschel wanted to name the newly-discovered planet for his patron, King George III of England. It might have made a good morale boost for George, who at the time was in the throes of mental and physical illness and had just lost his American colonies. A planet might not have been a bad consolation prize – but nobody outside England liked the idea of naming an entire planet for an English king.

The quite understandable international response to Herschel’s proposal underscores why the International Astronomical Union has naming guidelines for stars and planets today.

A Swedish astronomer suggested Neptune – which of course got used later on a different, and equally overlooked by science missions since 1986, ice giant. But the eventual winner was a suggestion from a German astronomer named Johann Bode, who had also figured out Uranus’ orbit while everyone else was debating the George vs. Neptune issue.

So we have Johann Bode to thank for headlines like “Uranus smells like farts” and for the fact that NASA will hopefully probe Uranus sometime in the next decade or so.

Bathroom Humor Either Way

But what Bode gave us, some modern astronomers at least attempt to take away.

It’s not just stodginess at work (although we should all spare a moment to consider the planetary scientists who have already been the butt of every possible play on words). Some scientists who study the oft-overlooked ice giant worry that if the public only associates the planet with butt jokes, they’ll be less willing to fund serious scientific research on Uranus.

The recent Decadal Survey results should offer some encouragement on that front; it’s clear that the scientific community realizes how interesting Uranus is. And for every headline that someone perhaps should have just sat on (still not sorry), there’s a new pile of readers being introduced to a truly fascinating, dynamic, and little-understood icy world.

Some scientists have tried, over the years, to shift everyone’s pronunciation to something that sounds more like “urine us” than “your anus,” but those efforts haven’t gained much ground. To be fair, both to those modern advocates of decorum and to Bode, the original British pronunciation (and the original original Greek) are much closer to the former than the latter. But Uranus is just too much fun to talk about – and as Lakdawalla pointed out, you can get plenty of juvenile humor out of either version.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.