Stop that. You're not 13 anymore. And besides, Uranus is possibly the best planet ever. Really.
LOOKING AT URANUS
Gaze for a moment, if you will, on the featureless disk that is Uranus (stop that). The discovery of Uranus ranks as one of the top scientific finds of history. (I mean it. Don't make me come back there.) In fact, we can safely say that science today would be entirely different, if it wasn't for Uranus...
I can wait until you're done, you know.
WHERE URANUS CAME FROM
"Uranus," of course, has nothing at all to do with your terminal excretory sphincter. First off, it's pronounced "yooor-ah-nus," not "yer-anus," as folks are so wont to do. Second, the word refers to one of the oldest characters in Greek mythology, the personification of the heavens, who with Gaia, the personification of the Earth, sired the Titans, a.k.a. the Elder Gods. They in turn sired the Olympians gods, whose names (in the Roman versions) grace the other planets, excepting Saturn, who was the most important Titan, and our own little Earth, the most boringly named, probably from the Olde English "earthe," meaning "earth."
When Uranus was given its name, it was to imply the majesty of the vast reaches of the universe. Its present status as the butt of butt jokes is an unfortunate and cruel irony.
Uranus is exciting because for most of our existence, humans didn't know it existed. It was the first new planet observed by humans since we looked up and noticed some "stars" were moving against the static backdrop of the sky. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were bright enough to see in the night sky. (Venus, in fact, was originally thought to be two separate planets, depending on whether it was visible in the evening or morning sky.) Uranus, on the other hand, was too far away from the Sun -1.8 billion miles or so- to reflect enough light to be seen.
The discovery of Uranus led directly to the discovery of the next planet, Neptune, after discrepancies in Uranus's orbit suggested there was just another planet out there. Neptune's discovery in turn suggested the existence of yet another planet -Pluto. It was like getting three planets for the price of one.
This would be enough to qualify Uranus for the Best Planet Ever -but wait, there's more. Every member of our solar family had its odd quirks: Venus has a day that's longer than its year, Jupiter has its Red Spot, Saturn, its rings, and Earth -well, Earth's got us.
But Uranus has got some truly freaky things going on. First, the planet's axis of rotation is tilted some 97 degrees, which means that, relative to all the other planets (whose axes are more or less perpendicular to their orbits), Uranus is on its side. It's fallen down and it can't get up. Its magnetic poles are skewed by nearly 60 degrees from the rotational poles, and -get this- the magnetic core of the planet is offset from the actual planetary core by 30 percent. So don't bother to bring a compass.
And there's more, like the fact that Uranus produces anomalously small amounts of internal heat for a gas giant, and the fact that spectral analysis reveals the planet to be mostly various types of ice. But you get the point: Uranus is just a big mess. If any planet in the system could be a metaphor for the frfeakish, off-kilter, and frankly inexplicable universe we all live in, this would be the one. And if we end up making fun of it because of its name, well, it's just that kind of universe, isn't it?
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.
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