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Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, the seventh planet in our solar system is named for the Greek deity Uranus, the original skygod of the Greek cosmology.  In classical myth Uranus was castrated and supplanted by his youngest son Cronus (Saturn) who then fell before Zeus (Jupiter) and indeed, the third largest planet in our solar system (in volume) is often overlooked by astronomers, whose eyes are trained on the dramatic gas-giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Only one mission has flown by Uranus–Voyager II, which captured the following undramatic photo in 1986 as it whipped through on its way to Neptune.

Photograph of Uranus taken by Voyage II in 1986 (not a cue ball!)

All of this is a shame, Uranus is not only the first ice-giant planet but it is unique in the solar system for rotating vertically rather than horizontally (probably thanks to some apocalyptic super collision long ago in the planet’s history). From our perspective, the moons of Uranus orbit around it like a clock’s hands and its sporty red rings sometimes give it the appearance of a target.  Uranus has an incredibly long rotation around the sun.  One Uranus year equals 84 Earth years.  Because it spins vertically rather than horizontally, one pole is cast in a super winter which lasts twenty of our earth years (remember the poles of Uranus are on the equator).  Voyager flew by during the deep freeze of winter to get that boring photo up there, but now the seasons are changing and spring is coming to Uranus’ northern pole while fall is coming to the south (I wish there were a different name for the side poles—this is really confusing to write about).

Planet Uranus is seen in this composite image by the Keck II Telescope at near-infrared wavelengths. (Lawrence Sromovsky, UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center)

Because of the seasonal change, huge storms (the size of a continent on Earth) are tearing through the Uranian atmosphere with 500 kilometer-per-hour methane winds.  Keep in mind that Uranus has the coldest atmosphere in the solar system, probably because the collision which knocked it on its side dissipated its primordial heat (although nobody really knows). Temperatures there get down to a chilly –224 °C.  Brrr!

A similar bright spot photographed by Hubbel in 2005 just before the vernal equinox

The spring storms are apparently dramatic and fierce enough to be seen from Earth.  Yesterday astronomers reported the appearance of a huge white speck with an albedo ten times that of the planet.  This methane storm probably looks like an immense immense thundercloud spreading above the usually placid blue cloud cover of the ice world.  Saturn has been going through its own cycle of super storms recently (in addition to the great hexagonal storm raging on its north pole).  Its tempting to adapt the folksy mannerisms of country smalltalk and suggest that weather in the solar system has been bad lately–but humankind is probably only just now able to apprehend such phenomena!

Cronus

In Greek myth the Titan Cronus, was ruler the heavens and king of the gods prior to the ascent of Zeus. Cronus ruled over the golden age of humankind when suffering was unknown and death was but a gentle dream.  Yet there was a darkness behind the reign of Cronus, a terrible stain upon the sickle which was his emblem.  Even while Cronus ruled heaven, he knew that he would end as a maimed wretch cast down into the underworld. A dread augury had revealed that he would fall at the hands of a son more powerful than he–and his personal history convinced him the prophecy was sooth.

Cronus was the most powerful son of Uranus, the original god of the primordial heavens. At the beginning of all things Uranus ruled as king of the gods and the firmament–but Uranus was displeased by the Hekatonkheires, hundred handed monsters born to him by his spouse Gaia. Despite Gaia’s pleas, Uranus imprisoned these monstrous sons in the dark prison of Tartaros.  Incensed by the haughtiness of her spouse, Gaia crafted a great flint sickle from her own bones.  Only Cronus had sufficient ambition, nerve, and cruelty to wield the sickle.  He ambushed Uranus and cut him into bloody pieces.  Gods and monsters were born of the hewn apart body of Uranus.  Unfortunately for Gaia’s plans,  Cronus saw no reason to free the Hekatonkheires, the Cyclops (one eyed monsters), or the other “undesirables” Uranus had already locked away and thus he, in turn, incurred the wrath of Gaia.

Cronus devours one of his offspring (Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, oil on canvas)

Having committed such an act, Cronus could not rest easy with his own children.  Whenever his wife, the Titaness Rhea, bore a son or daughter he snatched the baby away and swallowed it whole.  The mighty immortal Olympians, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon all started their lives as prisoners in their father’s gullet. Just before Zeus was born, Gaia whispered a plan to Rhea.  Rhea dressed a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband in place of their newborn child.  Cronus gulped down the rock and was none the wiser.  The baby grew to adulthood tended by Nymphs and fed by the divine goat Amalthea. When Zeus had grown powerful he made allies with Gaia and he took a first wife, Mètis, the goddess of wisdom, deep thought, and cunning.  Mètis gave Cronus a purgative of wine and mustard which caused the Titan to hurl up the five fully grown siblings of Zeus.  Together the Olympians, in alliance with the various sorts of imprisoned monsters, made war on the Titans (except for Prometheus, who could see the future and joined Zeus).  This epic battle, the Titanomachy, reshaped the landscape of the world (particularly that of Thessaly), but when it was over, the Olympians were victorious.  Cronus was cast down and Zeus locked him in Tartarus along with the other Titans except for Prometheus (and strong Atlas—who suffered his own punishment).  Zeus incurred the wrath of Gaia for imprisoning the Titans, who were also her children, and she began plotting against him and bearing further monsters to end his reign.

The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans (Joachim Wtewael, 1600)

Thus Zeus became king of the gods, but prophecy whispered that he would one day be supplanted by a stronger son….

What about Cronus? In classical myth, gods are immortal. The maimed Cronus could not die.  In some traditions he was imprisoned for a time in Tartaros with his siblings.  Mystery cults asserted that he recovered some of his regal glory: the Greek dithyrambic poet  Pindar wrote of how Cronus was elevated to be ruler of Elysium, that portion of the underworld reserved for heroes. According to the Orphic poems, Cronus is imprisoned for eternity in the cave of Nyx.  In the abject darkness, drunk on soporific honey, he cries out sometimes–for he is troubled by dreams of horrors yet to come.

The Hannover Military Band

The Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (colloquially known as the Electorate of Hanover) was a principality within the Holy Roman Empire.  In the mid eighteenth century, the region was ruled by the Prince Elector, Georg II.  A series of religious wars and a strange quirk of fate had made the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg the heirs to the British throne.  Prince Elector Georg II was therefore better known to his English subjects and to history as King George II.  In 1755, George II ordered his Hanoverian Guards Regiment to England.  The Hanover Military band went with the Guards.  One of the oboists of the band was named Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel.  Friedrich was something of a musical prodigy: he also played the violin, the cello, the harpsichord and the organ.   When the guards came to England, he liked the country and he left the band to move there permanently.  He accepted the position as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra and later became the organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath (a chapel attached to a very fashionable spa).  Throughout his career Frederick William Herschel (for he had anglicized his name) composed a great many musical works including 24 symphonies, numerous concertos, and a large canon of church music.

Frederick’s music is forgotten today, but later in his life he found his true calling.  As his musical career progressed, he became more and more deeply fascinated by lenses and mathematics. At the age of 35, he met the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal and Director of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Herschel began making mirror telescopes for Maskelyne, personally grinding the lenses and mirrors for up to 16 hours a day.  He also looked at the universe through the telescopes he had made and reported his discoveries. What he found made him one of the preeminent scientists in history (he also became extremely wealthy and was granted a knighthood).

The Planet Uranus (or "Georgium sidus" as Herschel originally named it)

Herschel is most famous for discovering Uranus, the first planet to be found since the depths of antiquity.  His other discoveries and ideas are perhaps even more remarkable. He was first to find out that the solar system is moving through space.  He coined the word “asteroid” as a name for such objects.  By observing Mars he determined its axial tilt and found that the Martian ice caps fluctuate in size. His attempts to determine if there was a link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate were unsuccessful (because of a lack of data), but formed the basis for successful work concerning both climatology and stellar physics.  Astonishingly, Herschel discovered infrared radiation, the first non-visible electromagnetic radiation to be known.  He accomplished this by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.  He found two new moons of Saturn and two moons of Uranus.  He correctly concluded that the Milky Way is a disk.  He debunked the notion that double stars were optical doubles and showed that they are truly binary stars (thus demonstrating that Newton’s laws extend beyond the solar system).

Sir Frederick William Herschel, 1738 - 1822 (painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1785)

In honor of his amazing career, numerous objects, devices, institutes and features around the solar system and beyond are named after Herschel (including the giant crater on Saturn’s moon Mimas). Few people have contributed so greatly to science or changed the conception of everything as much as this gifted Saxon oboist!

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