So a friend asks me today if I know the story of Uranus’ moons. Of course I know that they are named for Shakespearean characters, but he asks me why that is – why aren’t they named in the more traditional Greek style of the time.
Interesting question! The most I can find from wikiing around goes a little something like this:
In 1851, there were 3 known satellites of Uranus. Then a fourth was discovered. Astronomer John Herchel, son of William Herschel (who had discovered the first two), proposed the naming scheme: Umbriel, Ariel, Oberon, Titania. Umbriel being the newest one. It’s unclear whether the other three had names which were then changed, or if they simply hadn’t been named yet (they were discovered as far back as 1787, so it is unlikely that they had no names at all).
Here’s how I think the story goes. But first, a story of my own.
Once upon a time, I started a new job, and they gave me two server computers to set up. As the computer geeks out there may know, particularly in Unix land, you have to name your servers. Naturally, I named them Macbeth and Macduff. Seemed logical since I had the set. Well, later on, we hired someone to do that job for us who decided that my naming scheme had been “mac- words” and proceeded to go to town, so to speak, creating things like “macaroniandcheese”, “macgruffthecrimedog”, and a few others I can’t remember.
This later became “mc” words, including “mcfly” (Back to the Future), which somebody took and turned into “80’s catchphrases” and named a machine “bueller” for Ferris Bueller, and so on. Sometimes naming schemes take a funny turn.
Now, back to the story. Folks may recognize “Umbriel” as a character from Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock. It is also reminiscent of the Latin umbra-, for shadow. Umbriel is the darkest of Uranus’ moons. So I like to think that maybe Herschel was poetically inspired by the darkness and selected Umbriel as a fitting name.
It so happens, and this is where it gets interesting, that there is also a character in Pope named Ariel. “Aha!” thinks Herschel, “Ariel is also a Shakespearean character! And you know, there’s lots more Shakespeare characters than Pope characters to choose from. Maybe I should use Shakespeare instead.” Thus we got Ariel, Oberon and Titania (the two biggest, by the way, and thus the king and queen).
Almost a century later we got Miranda, and these days there’s something like 27 of them, as noted in the originally linked post. The only hole in my theory is that he named them all at the same time. If he really wanted to be consistent he could have chucked Umbriel and gone all Shakespeare.
I have no idea how the names really came about, I just like the idea of a guy 150 years ago using the same sort of creativity to name planets that I use to name my computers. Perhaps the geekiest bit of the story is that as late as 1986 somebody named one of the moons Belinda….which is back to the Pope scheme again! So surely there’s an astronomer out there with a geeky sense of humor just like mine who decided that not only was he not messing with the naming scheme, but he was actually being more true to the original. I like him.