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.

Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]


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