Season 6, Episode 8
March 13, 2022
Did they have planetary mnemonics in the 17th Century? Were people taught silly sentences like “My very excellent monarch journeys southward?” as an aid in remembering the order of the then-known six planets of the Milky Way galaxy? My guess is probably not, because I don’t think they had sixth graders in 1650. But hey – maybe I’m wrong. And if people were taught those silly sentences, they would have had to edit them after March 13, 1781, when William Herschel discovered a new part of the mnemonic.
It had been seen many times before, but was usually mistaken for a star. In fact, Herschel’s initial report listed the object as a comet. But over the following two years, astronomers across the globe conducted research and determined it to actually be a planet. By 1783, the planet had a name: Uranus.
Okay, quit your giggling. Uranus – stop! – is so much more than an excuse to say “your butt” in science class. It has an axial tilt of nearly 98 degrees, causing one pole to get 42 years of continuous sunlight before 42 years of darkness. It also, like its neighbor Saturn, has rings. And it has 27 known satellites, named for characters in the works of Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
What’s most interesting about Uranus’ discovery is that 149 years later to the day, the discovery of Pluto was announced. Two planets on the same day? Now that’s a fact that’s out of this world!
Truth be told, Clyde Tombaugh, a 23-year-old astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff AZ, actually made the discovery on February 18, 1930. However, it took time to confirm the discovery using several additional photographs. After confirming the object as a planet, news was telegraphed to the Harvard College Observatory on March 13, 1930.
Of course, Pluto is no longer an official planet, reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. I know this broke the hearts of many, whose hunger for a return to “My very excellent mother just served us nine pizzas” can never be satiated. Nevertheless, the object is one of the most well-known in the universe. And it doesn’t stop Pluto from orbiting our star the sun. We can still gaze out into space at the planets, the dwarf planets, the moons and the stars with wonder and curiosity. In celebration of these discoveries and those yet made, our theme for episode 8 of Community Radio is planets.