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Uranus Used To Be Called the Schoolyard-Friendly Name George

The seventh planet from our sun gets a lot of flack for its name, but the ice giant Uranus wasn’t always called that. For nearly 70 years after it was discovered, it went by a much less unfortunate name: George. 

Uranus’ distance from Earth is so enormous—746 million miles when the two planets are nearest to each other in orbit—that its reflected light is dim, making it appear more like a star than a planet. Astronomers could see Uranus in the sky, but they all mistook it for a star until March 1781, when William Herschel used a telescope to discover that Uranus was actually a planet.

Born in Germany in 1738, Hershel moved to England in his late teens. Earning his livelihood by composing music, playing organ, and teaching music, Herschel rented a telescope to indulge his interest in astronomy. In 1774, in his mid-30s, he built his own telescope so he could survey double stars in his spare time. 

In March 1781 in Bath (a town in Somerset, England), Herschel realized that an object he spotted was moving slowly, night after night, and concluded that the object was probably a comet or a planet rather than a star. After he told the Royal Society about his discovery, astronomers in other countries (Russia and Germany) calculated the orbit of Herschel’s find. Based on these calculations, the astronomy community agreed that it was indeed a planet. 

King George III rewarded Herschel for his discovery by appointing him as the official Court Astronomer, and at the request of the king, Herschel moved closer to the royal family so that they could use his telescopes to look at the sky. To honor his royal boss, Herschel named the planet he discovered Georgium Sidus, Latin for "The Star/Planet Of George." Other astronomers didn’t like how English-centric the name George was, so they suggested alternatives. French scientists called the planet Herschel, but German astronomer Johann Bode’s suggestion of Uranus became the most popular. Bode named the planet after Ouranos, the ancient Greek mythological god, to fit with the convention of naming planets after deities from classical mythology. Officially, though, Uranus was known as Georgium Sidus for nearly 70 years until 1850, when Her Majesty's Nautical Almanac Office (HMNAO) finally changed the name to Uranus.

Because of his discovery, Herschel became hugely respected by scientists and European nobles, and he received grant money to build better telescopes. In 1821, Herschel became president of the Royal Astronomical Society. In addition to discovering George/Uranus, Herschel’s legacy includes his work identifying thousands of star clusters and nebulae, as well as his discovery of infrared radiation in 1800. And though his Georgium Sidus name didn't stick, Herschel received an honor pertaining to his own name in 1816 when King George III knighted him, officially making him Sir William Herschel.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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