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June 4, 2024 41 mins

In this classic episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Joe continue their multi-year mission to discuss the various moons of our solar system – this time with the literary-themed moons of the ice giant Uranus. (Part 1 of 3, originally published 05/09/2023)

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Speaker 1 (00:06):
Hey, you welcome to stuff to blow your mind. My
name is Robert Lamb. We're on a little bit of
a summer break here, so we're going to be busting
out some vault episodes for you. We are going to
be diving into our series on the moons of Urunos.
So we're gonna begin with part one of three here.
This originally published on five nine, twenty twenty three.

Speaker 2 (00:28):
Enjoy What's the color of ice? I think about the
wedge of ice broken from the lid of the lake
in winter. It goes from dusky white to clear as
it leaks itself into your hands. But when the glacier

shears off and unveils its interface forged over one hundred
thousand years now you see a shinning blue. Now the
glacier melts into the sea and it's gone, becomes green
with algae, gray with mud, and a color that was
once called wine dark. But what is the color of ice?

That's not the ice we know that lies hidden behind
a haze and swims in a darkness crushed by diamond rain.
We approach our destination along the orbital plain, the great
wide table of the Sun. But as the planet comes
into view, we're looking at the north pole. This is summer.

The frozen eye reclines on its flank. There's the pole
now bathing in the season of light, the hidden face
the opposite pole now holds cord in the bitter cold
of the stars. There's something about that blue, almost as
cold as a thing can be, but joyful in the

way it devours the sunshine. It reminds us of something
something on Earth that brings life, or invites the living,
or is alive itself.

Speaker 3 (02:22):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind, a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 1 (02:31):
Hey you welcome to Stuff to Blow your Mind. My
name is Robert Lamb.

Speaker 2 (02:35):
And I'm Joe McCormick, and today we're going to be
fulfilling a very common request. Years ago, we did a
series of episodes where we looked at the moons of
various planets in the Solar System, the moons of Jupiter,
the moons of Saturn, the moons of Mars, and I
think we even did one even though Venus doesn't have

a moon. We did an episode sort of about the
alternative universe where there would be a moon of Venus
something like that. But today we're going to be talking
about the moons of the seventh planet in our Solar system.
In this first episode in the series, I think we're
going to be focusing mainly on the planet itself, and
then we will get more into the moons in the

subsequent part or parts. And since this is an audio medium,
the question of how to pronounce that planet's name is unavoidable.
I thought we should tackle it right here at the beginning,
because I know we have said it multiple ways on
the podcast before. I think I have said it multiple
ways before, and the only thing to do is give
ourselves preemptive, full absolution to pronounce it any which way

we want. But basically so, I was trying to figure
out what is actually the right way, and I think
it goes like this. If you listen to astronomers and
planetary scientists talk about this planet most often, you will
hear them pronounce it urinus, basically the word urine and
then the word us. On the other hand, there's sort

of a dos Boot situation going on with this planet name,
like for the most part, like the scientists might say uranus,
but for the most part, just people say uranus, you know,
at least they do in America. I don't know if
it's different in other English speaking cultures or other languages
where the name would be you know, a direct homophone.
But anyway, Uranus is it's sort of part of the culture.

It's part of the world we grew up in, and
there's really no fixing that. So I think that will
probably come out of our mouths as well.

Speaker 1 (04:28):
Well. The tragedy of it is that I feel like
most of the time when you hear Uranus as the
pronunciation for the planet Uranus, it is coming out of
the mouth of say a of a talk show host
or you know, late night news situation.

Speaker 2 (04:44):
A little bit of t he.

Speaker 1 (04:46):
Yeah, I mean not just a little bit of t he,
but like a front loaded, like dump truck quality of
t he to the to the to the detriment of
whatever the actual news is. Like, it could be announced
tomorrow that life was discovered on Uranus, but the late
night talk show hosts would say, you're anus. Everyone would

laugh and completely forget that the most breathtaking news in
the history of our species was just revealed. Because Urinus
if pronounced slightly incorrectly, I'm sorry. From my point of view,
it sounds like you're saying somebody's anus.

Speaker 2 (05:24):
Right, a benevolent jellyfish inhabit the clouds. It's very interesting.
But the main thing is we did successfully probe uranus haha.

Speaker 1 (05:33):
Yeah. Yeah, So it's I mean, especially for a professional
space science communicators, people working for NASA and so forth.
I don't know. I guess it probably comes to the
point where you've got to just embrace it, yeah, and
enroll with it. But it also there has to still
be some at least low level of just fixed frustration

over the situation.

Speaker 2 (05:55):
I think it's one of those things that becomes annoying
and then it comes full so and becomes funny again. Yeah,
but for another wrinkle, we have the apparently correct uranus
and then we have the common uranus. But according to
an interview I saw with the American physicist Kevin Grazier,
who writes a lot about space and about science fiction

from a science perspective. He was the editor and a
contributing author on the science of Doune, which we have
talked about on the show before. He says in one
interview that it technically it is uranus. So you know,
maybe he's right, but apparently nobody says it that way.

Speaker 1 (06:32):
I mean, it starts with everyone who wants to start
pronouncing it differently. You know, say Uranus sounds good to me, so.

Speaker 2 (06:39):
You say Uranus. I say Uranus. Most experts say Uranus.
But in any case, it's going to be fine. We
all know which planet we're talking about. It's number seven.
It's big, it's blue, it's cold, it's beautiful, and it
has a heck of a lot of moons.

Speaker 1 (06:55):
Yeah, and and the fair amount of mystery surrounding it.
You know, in this episode, we're venturing farther out into
the void here, so we're going to encounter some more
space to wonder. We'll also, I think eventually be getting
to a fourth pronunciation for your old boy, so strap in,
but Urinus. Here are some of the basics for anyone

who needs a refresher, and I think we can all
deal with a refresher. Uranus is the seventh planet from
the Sun and in size, it has the third largest
diameter in the Solar System. It's about four times larger than.

Speaker 2 (07:28):
Earth in diameter.

Speaker 1 (07:30):
Yes. While Urinus in its neighbor Neptune were previously classified
as gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, it became clear
in the nineteen nineties that they are actually a subset
of gas giants ice giants, So most of the planet's
mass is believed to be a hot and dense fluid
of icy materials around a small rocky core. Its atmosphere

is mostly molecular hydrogen and atomic helium, and there also
seems to be a small amount of methane. It experiences
the equivalent of a seventeen hour day like a seventeen
hour seventeen hours of Earth day, and an eighty four
year solar orbit.

Speaker 2 (08:07):
Now you mentioned that most of the planet's mass is
this relatively hot and dense fluid of icy materials, but
that should not give you the wrong impression about the
planet overall, because an interesting fact about Urinus is that
it is the coldest planet in the Solar System, even
though it is not the farthest from the Sun. Neptune

is much farther away from the Sun. I think something
like ten times the distance from the Earth to the
Sun farther away than Urinus is, and yet it is
actually a little bit warmer. On average, the temperature in
the upper atmosphere of Urinus reaches negative two hundred and
twenty four degrees celsius, colder than equivalent measures on Neptune,

which are about ten degrees celsius higher. I want to
come back in a little bit to why that might be.
But yeah, not the farthest away, but the coldest.

Speaker 1 (08:59):
It's cold out there. It's lonely out there. Now.

Speaker 2 (09:01):
You mentioned that it takes eighty four years for Urinus
to orbit the Sun once. That means since its discovery
in seventeen eighty one, which we will narrate in a
few minutes here, less than three full years have elapsed
on Uranus. It's seventeen eighty one plus eighty four Earth
years is eighteen sixty five plus another eighty four is

nineteen forty nine, and then it will be another full
year on that planet when it's twenty thirty three on Earth.
So the calendar pages tear away quite a bit slower there. Yeah,
this longer year also gives you an idea of how
far away from the Sun this planet is. You know.
This comes up on the show a good bit. When

we make visual representations of the Solar System. One thing
that's pretty much always impossible to capture is the real
relative size and distance between objects. There. Really, I think
is no convincing way to represent the real distance between
planets in the Solar System within the same image and

have it make intuitive sense. So let's talk about the
scaling up of distances as one moves further out from
the Sun. The average distance from Earth to the Sun
is a commonly used measurement. It's called an astronomical unit,
or AU for short, and it's equivalent to about one
hundred and forty nine point six million kilometers. Pulling up

numbers cited by NASA JPL for these other planets, both
Mercury and Venus, of course, are within one AU, so
Mercury is about zero point four and Venus is about
zero point seven AU from the Sun. They're both closer
than Us. Mars is about one point five AU, so
about one point one and a half times the distance

from Us to the Sun. Suddenly Jupiter is more than
five times the distance. Saturn is nine point five AU,
and then Urinus is suddenly nineteen points two AU, so
the distances multiply greatly the further you go out, and
then Neptune is about thirty so another another ten basically

sort of ten AU between Saturn and Uranus, and then
another ten between Uranus and Neptune.

Speaker 1 (11:17):
Yeah, so venturing into into the outer Solar system, you know,
it's like it's like leaving an urban center and traveling
out into the boonies. The gas stations that you would
you would venture into or are farther and farther apart,
and you begin to wonder where your next tank is
going to come from.

Speaker 2 (11:37):
Yeah, so it's always impossible to reckon the real scale
of space. And the funny thing is, this is just
our Solar system, you know, this is just like the
things that are actually relatively very close together from a
space perspective.

Speaker 1 (11:49):
Yeah, absolutely, all right, So let's see some more facts
about Urinus itself. It has thirteen rings, and like Venus,
it rotates east to west. It also wrote takes at
a near ninety degree angle from the plane of its orbit,
so this gives it the appearance of spinning on its side.

Speaker 2 (12:06):
That is a very interesting and unique fact about Uranus.
So if you can picture it, all of the other
planets in the Solar system, you know, they all have
some degree of axial tilt, but they more or less
spin like a top, with the north and south poles
facing more or less perpendicular to the solar plane. So
you can imagine the Sun in the middle of the
Solar System, and then there is a disk, a flat

disk spreading out from the Sun that all of the
planets orbit on. Those planets have some tilt, but they
more or less rotate so that their equator is in
line with that plane, and their north and south poles
are at right angles to it. Urinus is the exception.
It lies on its side. Its axial tilt is something

like ninety seven or ninety eight degrees, so almost perfectly
sideways from the perspective of the solar plane. Its equator
rotates up and down, and it'sles point to the sides,
which has the strange effect that its seasons as it
orbits the Sun throughout its year, mean that the poles

get like many earth years of light and darkness as
the year progresses. So for forty two years, its north
pole will be in relative sunshine and its south pole
will be in relative darkness, and then it flips around
for the other season. It's a weird planet, very strange,
and this actually comes back to the question of why

Uranus is the coldest planet, even though it's not the
farthest from the Sun. How could a planet closer to
the Sun be colder than one farther away. The answer
is that planets give off their own heat, and compared
to most, Urinus gives off very little. So one major
idea proposed to explain why Urinus gives off so little

intrinsic heat is the same as the reason it, unlike
other planets in the Solar System, rotates on its side.
Scientists think that billions of years ago, during the formation
of the Solar System, Urinus very likely suffered a colossal
impact from a roughly Earth sized or Mars sized object,

which was able to both knock it out of its
original orientation and give it its its backwards rotation pattern
opposite the rest of the Solar System and its sideways
orientation its sideways axial tilt, but also to blast away
much of its mass and energy, leaving it with less
intrinsic heat than even other ice giants like Neptune and So.

If this impact hypothesis is correct, it would explain much
of what we know about Urinus, why it's so cold,
why it's tilted, and why its rotation is the way
it is. One of the most striking things about Urinus
is its appearance, which can vary based on seasonal conditions,
but in the famous true color images assembled from what

was captured by the narrow angle camera of Voyager two
in nineteen eighty six, the planet looks like an almost
perfectly uniform field of pale blue green color, like a
featureless Cyan ocean of fog. And this is especially strange
when you think about it in contrast to the sort

of banded surface of Jupiter. It's just ripping with visible storms,
or like the sandy stripes you see on Saturn with
that big, nasty polar hexagon. The truth is Urinus is
not always as calm looking as it is in these
famous photos. For one example, I found a February seventh,
twenty nineteen NASA news article by Ray Villard and Claire

Seravia noting photos that had been taken by the Hubble
Space Telescope of visible storms on both Uranus and Neptune.
And in these pictures, the storm on Urinus appears as
a gigantic white dome of clouds swarming over the planet's
north pole, and the authors note that this gigantic weather
pattern might have been formed by seasonal changes of flow

in the atmosphere, because remember, the planet is tilted on
its side, so as the seasons change, the part of
the planet facing the direction of the sun goes from
a polar region that basically remains in direct sunlight for many,
many Earth years at a time to an equatorial region
that rotates through standard day night cycles like Earth does,

except it's rotating on its side, and these drastic changes
in seasons may give rise to major changes in the
flow of the atmosphere, resulting in weather like this. I
was reading an article by the astrophysics blogger Ethan Segel
which made the point that the Voyager two images are
probably especially featureless because they were taken during the solstice

on Uranus, when the continuous rays of sunlight had been
falling on one of the planet's polar regions for many
Earth years, and so this regime of NonStop polar daytime
created a haze of methane in the upper atmosphere. So
up at the top of the atmosphere there's all this
methane up there, which both masks the clouds and the

visible weather patterns below, so you can't really see what's
going on beneath all that methane, and it absorbs red light,
leading to the pale blue green color that we can't
stop staring at. By contrast, when you see photos of
Uranus taken by telescopes during its equinox, you will see
more defined atmospheric bands and storms and clouds, not as

dramatic at all as what you'd see on Jupiter, but
the stuff is there, So Uranus is not actually always featureless.
This seems to be a function of when and how
it was photographed by Voyager two. But in those voyager
images it is deeply striking, almost haunting, how frozen and

unperturbed and uniform the planet appears.

Speaker 1 (18:10):
Very interesting. Yeah, yeah, it's a it's there's a there's
a calmness. So it's a call like you look at
images of of of Urinus and it's it's calming compared
to like the the the the the evident kind of
complexity and chaos of Jupiter.

Speaker 2 (18:24):
Absolutely colder, stiller, more uniform, it all even lying on
its side, and not to get to uh anthropomorphic, but
as if dead.

Speaker 1 (18:34):
Yeah, and there's also a sense of the sky to it,
which is fitting. We'll come back to that in a second.
But yeah, mostly though this this uh, this this episode,
we're getting into the moons of Uranus, and it has
a healthy number of moons twenty seven known moons. Uh,
this is a good night. This is a number that
we can handle. We can actually name I think all

the moons of Urinus, whereas, of course there was some
so some really robust moon counts for Jupiter and Saturn.
So things are leveling out a little bit for us
as we continue our journey out through the Solar system.

Speaker 2 (19:10):
Yeah, I think this is more of a fair fight.
I don't think we said the names of all the
moons of Jupiter or Saturn.

Speaker 1 (19:15):

Speaker 2 (19:15):
Well, we can't promise in this series that we're going
to like discuss all of your uriness's moons deeply, because
some of them are just kind of rocks that I
don't know how much there is to say about them.
I don't mean to be offensive if you're a devotee
of any particular Bianca or something, but yeah, we will
have more to say about some than others.

Speaker 1 (19:34):
Yeah, and there's just not a lot to say about
some of them, just because we just haven't explored Uranus
or its moons as much. We've only had the one
voyager two fly by really, and that's it, basically, know,
in addition to things like Hubble analysis and so forth.

Speaker 2 (20:00):
Before we explore more about the planet and its moons,
I think we should take a little bit of time
to discuss the origins of this, this name, the mythological
moniker that has caused so much pleasure and pain among
astronomers worldwide.

Speaker 1 (20:13):
Yeah, that's right, and you know, it could have been
it could have been weirder in some respects because it
took about seventy years for this to be firmly decided upon. That, Yes,
this planet is Uranus. William Herschel wanted to name it
after King George the Third, so he wanted to call
it essentially the George Star Georgium Sidas. But luckily we didn't.

Can you imagine if that was the we had all
these you know, these Roman deity names, and then George
Starr amazing and presumably.

Speaker 2 (20:48):
I've got a story to tell about William Herschel in
a little bit here, But yeah, wanting to name it
after King George the third, he's just forever in the
heavens that that would be hilarious. Yeah, I don't know
what the modern equivalent, like, this is the this is
the Gerald Ford planet.

Speaker 1 (21:05):
I mean it is there's always gonna be something weird
about naming these astral bodies after things and a given culture,
and we'll run into some of that again when we
get into some of the literary names that are invoked
in the moons. But but yeah, I just can't imagine
this being the George Starr. So the namesake here is
the Greek primordial deity of the sky Urinus, or I

think more correctly, or it would be Urunas. Right, we've
talked about this before on the show.

Speaker 2 (21:34):
I don't know if i'd stand by that. I've heard
it said that way too, So we've got Urinus is
what most astronomers and planetary scientists say. The lay public,
at least in the US, says uranus. We got one
interview with the guy who says, technically it's uranus, And yes,
I've also heard uranus.

Speaker 1 (21:53):
Yeah, though I love Uruanas. But I'm gonna feel like
a weirdo if I start calling it that just among
friends and family or even on the podcast. So I'm
just gonna have to stick with you. Okay, let's do
it all right? So who is? We can say ruinas
though when we're referring to the god I think maybe
that's a good way of differentiating it. Here Greek primordial

deity of the sky and both a child and a
consort of Gaya, the parent and a parent of Titans
of the Cyclopses, as well as the hecataneries, the one
hundred handed warriors who don't get enough I think attention
in the various wars of the gods, perhaps just because
they're hard to illustrate. It's hard to maybe imagine what

a hundred handed monster looks like.

Speaker 2 (22:41):
I don't know, you can imagine. Two hands is just
kind of multiply from there.

Speaker 1 (22:45):
Yeah, just like an absurdity of goro coming at you there.

Speaker 2 (22:49):
What's the Latin prefix for fifty, like the quinta deca goro?

Speaker 1 (22:56):
I don't know that sounds good. Okay, that's a lot
of button inputs for the punches anyway. Urinas is the
one who stands on high. He is the rain maker.
Among his many children was the titan Cronus, who, at
Gaya's urging, rebelled against his father, And of course Cronus
famously castrated his father in the myths and cast the

bloody pieces over his shoulder and ushered in a new
age of gods. Cronus would of course eventually be overthrown
by his own son Zeus.

Speaker 2 (23:27):
Okay, well, here, I thought this is a good opportunity
to ever reading from Hesiod's Theogony to explain what happened
to old Urinus here.

Speaker 1 (23:35):
Oh, let's hap it.

Speaker 2 (23:36):
Okay. This is the version hosted on Harvard Center for
Hellenic Studies website. This is a translation by Naggie and Banks. Oh,
and it's gonna mention Earth and Sky. I think Earth
would be the goddess Gaya and Sky would be Urinus here. Yeah,
Hesiod writes, Now monstrous strength is powerful joined with vast size.
Four of as many sons as were born of Earth

and Sky. They were the fiercest, and were by their
father from the very first. As soon as any of
these was born, he would hide them all and not
send them up to the light. In a cave of
the Earth and Sky exulted over the work of mischief,
while huge Earth groaned from within, straightened as she was,

and she devised a subtle and evil scheme for quickly.
Having produced a stock of white iron, she forged a
large sickle blade, and gave the word to her children,
and said encouragingly, though troubled in her heart. Children of
me and of a father madly violent, if you would
obey me, we shall avenge the baneful injury of your father,

for he was the first that devised acts of indignity,
so spoke she. But soon seized on them all, nor
did any of them speak till, having gathered courage, great
and wily Cronos addressed his dear mother. Thus in reply, Mother,
this deed, at any rate I will undertake and accomplished,
since our father of detested name, I care not, for

he was the first that devised acts of indignity. They're
really hitting the talking points here, yea. Thus spoke he,
and huge Earth rejoiced much at heart, and hid and
planted him in ambush. In his hand she placed a
sickle with jagged teeth, and suggested to him all the stratagem.

Then came vast Sky, bringing night with him, and eager
for love, brooded around Earth and lay stretched on all sides.
But his son, from out his ambush, grasped at him
with his left hand, while in his right he took
the huge sickle, long and jagged toothed, and hastily mowed
off the genitals of his father and threw them backwards

to be carried away behind him.

Speaker 1 (25:44):
Pretty pretty rough stuff. And I don't know why the
sickle had to have jagged teeth. I don't know either,
was just laying it in there a little bit.

Speaker 2 (25:52):
It's a serrated sickle. I've never even heard of such
a thing. It's like a steak knife. But as I mentioned,
you'urine there, his name is synonymous with sky, so in
this translation they just call him Sky. So I think
it's very interesting that we end up with a planet that,
in a way, based on the original mythological context, could
just be called Sky. It is the sky.

Speaker 1 (26:14):
Planet, yeah, yeah, And of course it's interesting that we're
switching from Roman to Greek in coming out here to Uranus,
and the course this may raise the question of why,
like why are we talking about modern discussions of what
this planet will be named? And of course you know
that has to do with how late it was discovered,

properly discovered, because when discussing basically this comes down to
a discussion of the classical planets versus the more outer
and I guess you could say modern planets. The classical
planets are those visible to the naked eye and bright
enough to be considered important in ancient astronomy and astrology.

And we'll discuss a little bit more about what that
means in just a second. Are there are many names
for the classical planets because they pop up in various
astronomical systems.

Speaker 2 (27:07):
Right, they were known to many different ancient cultures, so
they have many different names exactly.

Speaker 1 (27:12):
Yeah. So you know, for instance, Mercury through Saturn have
names that indicate elemental alignment in Chinese tradition, So Mars
is the fire star, Jupiter is the wood star, that
sort of thing. But the Chinese for the outer planets,
interestingly enough, is not based in an actual like Chinese

astro astrological history, but in translation of at least the
spirit of the Western names. So Uranus in in Mandarin
is tan wang Shing or sky king star. So I
think that's that's enter just basically alluding to this is
a sky god. That's the name that we've used in

naming the planet. So it's sky sky king star. Neptune
is ocean king star, Pluto is nether World king star.
In translation, I.

Speaker 2 (28:04):
Love that, yes, translating the sense of the names. So
the name in Mandarin is like a summary of where
the name comes from, like the Latin or Greek name.

Speaker 1 (28:13):
Yeah. So again talking about the classical planets here, these
were the planets that were known to antiquity, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter,
and Saturn. Uranus was the first planet discovered via the
aid of a telescope, and it happened in seventeen eighty
one by astronomer William Herschel. In addition, he also discovered

infrared radiation. He's also credited with the discovery of Titania
and Oberon, which are some moons we'll get into in
a bit, as well as two of the moons of Saturn,
Enceladus and Mimas. His son, John Herschel got to carry
on their tradition and named seven moons of Saturn and
four moons of Uranus.

Speaker 2 (28:55):
Now, a really interesting thing about the discovery of Uranus
by William Herschel is the at first he did not
realize he had discovered a new planet in the Solar System,
and the reason for this will sort of tie into
things we've been talking about. I was reading about this
in a paper called Uranus in the establishment of Herschel's
Astronomy by Simon Schaeffer, published in the Journal of the

History of Astronomy in nineteen eighty one, and so the
story of the discovery of Uranus goes like this. William
Herschel had undertaken a project, beginning in seventeen seventy nine,
to survey all of the stars in the sky to
the limit of the eighth magnitude using a seven foot
reflecting telescope, mainly for the purpose of identifying double stars

so that Herschel could try to make measurements of stellar parallax.
In March seventeen eighty one, Herschel had his telescope moved
to his house on New King Street in Bath in Somerset, England,
and he was picking up with his observations from this location.
And on the week of the discovery of Uranus, he

had been occupied cataloging the visible stars within the constellation Gemini,
and also with some observations of the planet's Mars and Saturn.
And on Tuesday, March thirteenth, at ten thirty pm, Herschel
made a note of an object in the area of
the star Pollux, also known as Beta Geminorum. The object

was quote a curious either nebulous star or perhaps a comet,
and he later translated this discovery to his volume in progress,
which was called Observations on the Fixed Stars. Quote, looking
at a star in the quartile between oregus right foot
and the left foot of Castor, I discovered a comet.

It was at the distance of almost two thirds of
my field of view from a small telescopic star which
followed it, and seemed to have the same declination. Now
Herschel didn't seem to be immediately overwhelmed with ideas of
the importance of this finding. He after this just went
back to looking for double stars, and it wasn't until
Saturday March seventeenth, which was four days later, that he

went back and looked for the curious nebulous star or
perhaps comet again, and this time he concluded that it
must be a comet rather than a star, because it
had changed its place. So he invited some friends over,
including a guy named doctor William Watson, to come take
a look at the comet he had found, and he
noted in his journal that unfortunately the measurements he took

that night were written down wrong because Watson and another
gentleman wouldn't stop talking at him while he was trying
to write them, but he eventually sent off his findings
in a letter to the Royal Society in London, and
Herschel reported that the object was a newly discovered comet,
but there were some strange things about it. Based on

initial observations, it would seem that the comet was quote
much larger in diameter but less luminous than any comet
known at the time, and that quote its body seemed
very very well defined, having neither beard nor tail. Now
that struck me because I was like, what is a beard?
Comets are often said to have tails, but the idea

of a beard I was less familiar with. As best
I could figure out, this, I think seems to just
be another way of describing the tail of a comet, which,
of course, the tail is an elongated cloud trailing off
of the comet away from the Sun, caused when the
comet approaches closer in its orbit to the Sun and
then solar radiation heats the volatile materials on the surface

of the comet and they vaporize and stream away into space.
I don't know if the following is the difference emphasized
by beard versus tail, but comets often do have two
distinct tails, a dust tail made of the dust to
find particles coming off of the comet from this outgassing
when it's heated, and then also a gas tail made

of glowing ionized gases. However, I could find archaic references
to comets in general simply calling them quote bearded stars.
So I don't know, maybe a beard means either one.
I guess the other ideas that it could possibly refer
to the idea of a coma, which is the sort
of tenuous atmosphere of a comet, seen usually as a

fuzzy spherical cloud around the solid nucleus.

Speaker 1 (33:19):
I wonder too if this might come down to sort
of the distinction between sort of you know, more modern
telescope generated imagery and pure telescope observation. You know, we've
talked about that a little bit, like the role of
the observer in real time and sort of you know,

classical telescope astronomy versus the more modern use of imagery.

Speaker 2 (33:45):
I don't know for sure about that, But so he's like, ah, okay,
it's a comet, but it just it doesn't have a
lot of the characteristics we would expect of a comment.
In fact, the paper cites a letter from the French
astronomer Charles Messier, who was known as quote the Ferret
of comets. I'd never heard that before, but I think
he found a lot of them. Messier, the Ferret of Comets,

wrote to Herschel in April of seventeen eighty one. It
was quoted in the paper in French, so I had
to translate. Apologies if this is a little bit approximate,
But Messier says, I'm amazed at this comment, which does
not carry with it any distinctive character of comets, and
that it does not resemble any of those which I
have observed, which are eighteen in number. So I just

thought this was interesting. It seemed at first all of
the learned astronomers were calling it a comet, even though
they recognize that it's really not like a comet at all,
Like it doesn't have any of the characteristics we would expect,
doesn't behave like a comet. It seems that the first
person on record to have mentioned that this new comet
might actually be a planet was the British astronomer Royal

Neville Masculine, who argued that it might be a comet,
but it might also be a new planet, and if
it were a comet, it would be unlike any other
Herschel apparently did not refer to Uranus as a planet
until the summer of seventeen eighty two, when he called
it quote my planet and again he wanted to originally

call it Georgi McIDAS the George Star again lol. But
so I was just wondering, like, why is everybody so
quick to assume it's a comet? Why did it take
them a little while to come around to the conclusion

that it was actually a planet? And Schaeffer in this
paper argues that even though Maskerline was the first to
suggest it might be a planet, quote, Maskerline's own practice
was fundamentally conditioned by the eighteenth century triumphs in cometary astronomy.
Comets dominated the contemporary perception of the heavens. It seemed
inconceivable that a new planet could be discovered. And I

think this must just come back to the state of
astronomy as it was at the time, because as you
were talking about rob Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, all
the other planets up to this point had been known
about since antiquity. They were written about by Babylonian astronomers
thousands of years ago. They were charted with the naked eye,
and Copernicus had correctly figured out that they orbited the

Sun and not the Earth.

Speaker 1 (36:20):
Now I just want to drive home here that again, Yeah,
the classical planets are those that could be seen with
the naked eye, but also were distinct enough to be
of value. But if you're really looking with the naked
eye and the conditions are just right, you apparently can
see Urinus. But again, the whole deal here is that

what you see is not significant enough to have had
any impact on these ancient astrological and astronomical systems. According
to Pete Lawrence, writing for BBC Sky at Night magazine
in twenty twenty, yeah, it is possible to see Urinus
with the naked eye conditions and preparations are just right.
He stresses, however, that the planet quote shines at the

edge of naked eye visibility, and any direct views of
Urinus aren't always conclusive.

Speaker 2 (37:10):
Yeah. That was my understanding from reading all this stuff
as well, that it's sort of right on the edge
of naked eye visibility, to the point where some people
argue that, oh, maybe this thing that somebody said, you know,
a naked eye astronomer in the ancient world observed, was
actually an observation of Uranus. But it's hard to know.

Speaker 1 (37:28):
To put it in terms of our weird house cinema
listeners might appreciate, It's like watching The Devil's Rain and
then asking is John Travolta in this? Is John Travolta
a star?

Speaker 2 (37:38):
Evidence is inconclusive, right, But so coming back to this, So,
like all the planets through Saturn had been known since
antiquity to multiple different cultures, there had been other heavenly
bodies identified since the invention of telescopes, but none of
them were planets in the Solar System. Galileo had identified
moons of Jupiter, Cassini and Hoytsche identified moons of Saturn,

but Herschel's identification of Uranus was actually the first time
since ancient times that the existence of a new planet
in the Solar System had been confirmed. That's just not
something these astronomers were really expecting to find. Comets, on
the other hand, were constantly being discovered. Discovering new comets
was one of the major endeavors of astronomers of the day.

You had the ferret of comets out there doing ferreting
them out, so you could think of this as a
kind of astronomical confirmation bias. Comets were just that's what
you discover, that's the thing you're expecting to see.

Speaker 1 (38:38):
Yeah, yeah, it's planets. And then just it's filthy with
comets and you got to send the comet truffle hog
out there to root them out.

Speaker 2 (38:46):
So, of course there were many subsequent discoveries of the
moons of Uranus, but a lot of what we now
know about Urinus really comes in the later twentieth century
with the flyby of Voyager two.

Speaker 1 (38:59):
Yeah, and as we'll really be driven home as we
discuss these moons one by one, it's like Voyager two
is the defining mission. Like a lot of what we
know comes either in it from that fly by or
it's the combination of that fly by information combined with
say Hubble telescope information as well. So it's a lot

of the mysteries of Uranus and its moons remains. All right,
So when we come back in the next episode, we
will blow through the twenty seven known moons of Urinus.

Speaker 2 (39:34):
All twenty seven in one episode. I don't know if
we can do that.

Speaker 1 (39:37):
All twenty seven one episode, that's a guarantee. That's a guarantee,
so be sure to join us for that, and then
I don't know, and then at some point in the
future we'll move on to Neptune. But next episode will
be Moon by Moon the moons of Uranus. In the meantime,
if you would like to check out other episodes of
Stuff to Blow your Mind, well check out the Stuff

to Blow Mind podcast feed. If you go back far enough,
you'll find those episodes we did about the other moons
in our solar system and Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, et cetera.
But yeah, core episodes published on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On
Mondays we do listener mail. Wednesdays we do a short
form monster fact or artifact, and tomorrow's will also tie
into Urinus, so tune in for that. And then on

Fridays we set aside most serious concerns and just talk
about a weird movie on Weird House Cinema.

Speaker 2 (40:28):
Huge thanks to our audio producer JJ Pousway. If you
would like to get in touch with us with feedback
on this episode or any other to suggest a topic
for the future, or just to say hello. You can
email us at contact at stuff to Blow your Mind
dot com.

Speaker 3 (40:49):
Stuff to Blow Your Mind is production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts from my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you're listening to your favorite shows.

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