(Julia Franz’s article appeared on PI, 1/1/17.)
What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s star-crossed Juliet famously wanted to know. And for those of us peering skyward, it’s a question for the ages: Where do celestial bodies get their names from?
here are constellations and planets christened after Greek and Roman gods. The craters on Mercury are artists and musicians, like Bach, John Lennon and Disney. And the moons of the planet Uranus — there are, impressively, 27 altogether — have literary ties — 25 of them relate to characters in Shakespeare’s plays.
For centuries, whoever discovered a celestial body usually had dibs on the naming rights. But when it comes to Uranus’ moons, details are murky about who exactly began doling out Shakespearean monikers.
The first two moons called Titania and Oberon, after the king and queen of the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” were discovered by William Herschel in 1787. (He was also a famous composer.) But Herschel simply referred to the satellites as “number one” and “number two,” according to Cambridge University historian Michael Hoskin.
“I’ve read a huge amount of what Herschel wrote. And as far as I know, he’d never heard of Shakespeare,” Hoskin says.