Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 15
Sometimes it seems you can hear or see traces of Shakespeare just about anywhere on Earth. But how about around the planet Uranus, which had not even been discovered in Shakespeare’s time?
In this celestial edition, Rebecca Sheir, host of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, traces the quirky, fascinating, and little-known tale of the 27 known moons of Uranus—nearly all of which have Shakespearean names.
Through the voices of historians, actors, and modern scientists, “Brave New Worlds” tells the story behind that curious fact, starting with the planet’s discovery in 1781 and continuing through Voyager 2’s flyby in 1986 and the discoveries of still more moons in recent years.
From the Uranian moons Ariel, Oberon, Titania, and Miranda, to Ferdinand, Caliban, and Cordelia (to name only a few), join us on a literary-scientific trip to the outer solar system you won’t soon forget.
Featured in this podcast:
- Michael Crowe is an emeritus professor of liberal arts at Notre Dame University.
- Brett Gladman is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
- Lisa Grossman is a writer for New Scientist magazine.
- Michael Hoskin is a professor at Cambridge University.
- JJ Kevelaars is an astronomer at the National Research Council Canada.
- Tobias Owen is a professor at the Institute for Astronomy associated with the University of Hawaii.
- Derek Sears is a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
- Scott Sheppard is a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © November 19, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Brave New Worlds,” was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.
We had an enormous amount of help gathering material for this podcast. In particular, we would like to thank Jennifer Blue of the US Geological Survey, Bradford Smith of the International Astronomical Union, Dale Cruikshank at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and David DeVorkin, senior curator of astronomy and space sciences at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Esther French and Georgianna Ziegler of the Folger Shakespeare Library provided additional assistance. Voice recreations were performed by Anthony Reuben and Elena Burger. We had technical help from Jean Cochran and Britta Greene.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
One goal of this podcast series is to highlight times when Shakespeare pops up in unusual places in modern-day life. Like inside a prison filled with South African revolutionaries, or in an American courtroom during a dispute between the beneficiaries of a will, or 1.6 billion miles above the Earth, near a planet that Shakespeare didn’t even know existed. That’s what we’ll be hearing about in this episode. Our subject is moons, inconstant moons.
We call this podcast “Brave New Worlds.” The narrator is Rebecca Sheir.
REBECCA SHEIR: There are certain things that we take for granted in life. One of them is that pretty much everything is going to have a name. Babies, of course, and pets, but also towns and cities, hurricanes, military missions. Everything has a name. With that in mind, listen to this, one of the most famous sentences from space exploration.
[CLIP of Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, July 20, 1969:]
NEIL ARMSTRONG: Houston, uh, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.
SHEIR: That passage has nine words in it, and a third of them are names. We take it for granted that things have names, but it’s fair to say we hardly ever think about how they got them. In the case of the three we just heard, Houston, Eagle, and Tranquility, none happened by accident. Over the course of years, people with agendas and ideas debated, sometimes forcefully, and came up with these words, to honor a hero, a nation, and a state of being. Believe it or not, there are actually people whose job it is to do this kind of thing, especially when it comes to naming something like the Sea of Tranquility.
TOBIAS OWEN: I’m Tobias Owen and I’m a professor at the Institute for Astronomy that’s associated with the University of Hawaii.
SHEIR: Toby Owen is one of these people. In the 1980s, he led a team that named practically every large thing in the outer reaches of our solar system.
OWEN: We put in, gosh, over a thousand names, 2,000 names. I don’t know, just a huge number of names, and it was a lot of fun doing it.
SHEIR: All the newly discovered moons and, on a number of moons, all the mountains, all the escarpments and valleys, everything.
DEREK SEARS: We do insist on giving them individual names.
SHEIR: Derek Sears is a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
SEARS: I think there’s a romanticism. There is a familiarity, somehow, with giving things names. It’s just something about the right side of the brain of the astronomers that says let’s give them all names, you know. [LAUGH] Totally unnecessary, but we kind of like it.
SHEIR: Now, they don’t just name these things willy-nilly. In most cases, there are well-established conventions that determine the basic outlines of the decision-making process. At the Folger, a library devoted to Shakespeare, the rules that matter to us revolve, literally, around the planet Uranus, because when it comes to the seventh planet from the sun, the international convention is very specific.
SEARS: If they’re going to be moons of Uranus, they’re going to be Shakespearean names.
MICHAEL CROWE: The first two moons were named Oberon and Titania.
OWEN: Miranda, of course. It comes from The Tempest.
BRETT GLADMAN: Caliban seemed completely logical to me.
OWEN: Puck was the first small satellite that was discovered.
GLADMAN: The other obvious one was to use Prospero.
JJ KEVELAARS: The next one, I think, is Setebos, is the other member, and so that, you know, connects nicely to Prospero as well.
SCOTT SHEPPARD: I just simply did a search for “Margaret,” which was my Mom’s name, on the Web, and “Shakespeare,” and it came up with Much Ado About Nothing.
SHEIR: There are 27 known moons of Uranus. All but two are named after characters from Shakespeare. There’s Ophelia, there’s Sycorax and Desdemona, there’s one called Perdita, and on and on. Twenty-five Shakespeare names plus two from a poem by Alexander Pope. The surface features of these moons, the ones where Voyager got close enough to see them, also have Shakespearean names. On Miranda, there are craters, scarps, and mountains with Shakespearean place names like Arden and Dunsinane.
We’d like to think that Shakespeare is everywhere, but just like Houston, Eagle, and Tranquility, this didn’t happen by accident. There is an historical progression that leads us here, though it’s one whose origin is shrouded under a “thick-grown brake.”
Let’s take, for starters, where the tradition of naming these moons after Shakespeare characters came from. Looking on the Internet, of course, it’s easy to be led astray, but even in books, you’ll find passages like this.
[CLIP: Text from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare Graphics):]
While A Midsummer Night’s Dream had many inspirations, it also influenced modern culture.
SHEIR: This is from the introduction to a 2001 graphic novelization of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Nel Yomtov and [illustrated by] Bernice Muniz.
[CLIP: Text continues from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare Graphics):]
For example, when William Herschel, a British astronomer, discovered the two moons circling the planet Uranus in 1787, he named them Oberon and Titania in honor of the king and queen of the fairies.
[CLIP of Symphony No. 17 in C Major, Frederick William Herschel]
SHEIR: You’re listening to Symphony No. 17 in C Major by Frederick William Herschel, the man who discovered Uranus. Herschel was born in 1738 in Hanover, in what is now Germany. His father played in the band of the Hanoverian Guards, and after he left school, young Herschel joined the band himself. That worked out well until the year he turned 19. Cambridge Professor Michael Hoskin has written eight books about Herschel. That year, Dr. Hoskin says:
MICHAEL HOSKIN: The Hanoverian Guards were defeated by the French at the battle of Hastenbeck.
SHEIR: Because he was still only a teenager and hadn’t sworn an oath to the Guards, Herschel’s father told him that he and his brother should flee to England.
HOSKIN: The reason for going to England was that the King of England, George II, was also the ruler of Hanover.
SHEIR: When he arrived, Herschel, who referred to himself as William, was a refugee.
HOSKIN: Life was in chaos after the defeat by the French.
SHEIR: The advice he received back in Hanover was wise. His father ended up spending several years in a POW camp. William was still technically a deserter, so he couldn’t go back to Hanover. He stuck around England, playing in bands, and eventually moving to the town of Bath, where there was a high-end spa and nightspots that needed musicians.
HOSKIN: William had chanced to come across a book on “harmonics,” that’s to say, music, by the Cambridge professor Robert Smith, and then, in Bath, he chanced upon Robert Smith’s other book, a two-volume work on optics.
SHEIR: That book, as it turned out, included a how-to guide on building a telescope.
HOSKIN: And this greatly triggered William’s interest.
SHEIR: William set about first building, then buying, his own mirrors, and eventually, Dr. Hoskin says:
HOSKIN: He managed to make himself a telescope, where the mirror was quite simply the finest on Earth.
SHEIR: With this amazing instrument, Herschel was studying the sky on the night of March 13, 1781, when he found an object that looked different from the other stars.
HOSKIN: Four days later, he went back to have another look at it, and he found it had moved.
SHEIR: What he had found was not a star, but a planet within our solar system, one that had never been seen before. The new planet, of course, needed a name, and William, who as an amateur was looking for a patron, thought a good idea was to give it the same one as the king of England. He named the planet George.
HOSKIN: The “Georgian star,” or in Latin, Georgium Sidus, and, in return, the king made him his court astronomer at Windsor Castle.
SHEIR: It was there, six years later, that Herschel discovered Oberon and Titania, the planet’s first two moons. This brief history raises all kinds of questions and possibilities. Herschel was German, not English, so why Shakespeare? Was he a fan? Perhaps he was paying a debt of gratitude to the nation that had given him sanctuary as a boy and named the moons after characters by that nation’s greatest playwright. Maybe he was pressured to do it by other astronomers. After all, no one calls the planet Georgium Sidus anymore. It’s Uranus, and it’s Uranus because European astronomers said so.
It takes a considerable amount of research to answer the question of where those two names came from. Research that could perhaps only be done by someone who had written eight books about the man in question. Dr. Hoskin did that research and what he found was this. Those books, and other sources, the ones that tell you William Herschel named the two moons Oberon and Titania: They’re wrong.
HOSKIN: William Herschel never gave any name to the two moons. He just called them number one and number two.
SHEIR: Number one and number two. No Oberon, no Titania, and in fact…
HOSKIN: I’ve read a huge amount of what Herschel wrote, and, as far as I know, he’d never heard of Shakespeare.
SHEIR: Well, now what? If he didn’t name them Titania and Oberon and get this tradition started, who did? While you’ll find a small handful of incorrect references to William Herschel naming those moons, you’ll find plenty of books that tell you they were named by John Herschel. And John Herschel was who? Michael Crowe is an emeritus professor of liberal studies at Notre Dame, who authored an 800-page volume of John Herschel’s letters.
MICHAEL CROWE: He was the only child of William Herschel. He was a very professional astronomer and much else. I think he would be recognized by his contemporaries as the most prominent scientist in Britain during that period.
SHEIR: John Herschel never discovered any moons, but he named a lot of them. How he relates to Shakespeare and Uranus is this. Back in the 1700s, when William Herschel discovered the planet and those first two moons, he also thought he’d found two more moons. Forty-nine years later, his son John Herschel tried to find them again. He couldn’t, though, because…
CROWE: Turned out they’re not there. And then in 1851, William Lassell discovered two moons in another position, and they are actually there.
SHEIR: Lassell was a wealthy beer maker and amateur astronomer who was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society at a time when John Herschel was its president. There was a standing practice in the 1850s when it came to astronomical names, a practice which, at that point, went all the way back to Galileo. NASA’s Derek Sears explains.
SEARS: There is a tradition in astronomy of the discoverer having the honor of doing the name, and I think, at that point, there was honor among gentlemen. And once the discoverer had named it, everyone else pretty much went along.
SHEIR: Lassell was the discoverer, but whether he gave them the names, we don’t know. We do know that John Herschel gave names to the moons of Saturn, so it’s safe to assume he named the moons of Uranus, too. And in his landmark book, Outlines of Astronomy, Herschel does explain why the moons have their names.
[CLIP of text from John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy:]
JOHN HERSCHEL: Four [satellites of Uranus] are known to exist, to which… the names Oberon, Titania, Umbriel, and Ariel… of the fairies, sylphs, and gnomes of Shakespeare and Pope, have been assigned respectively.
SHEIR: But he never claims credit for the names. As a result, Michael Crowe points out,
CROWE: It’s not known definitely who named them.
SHEIR: We can’t even extrapolate an answer from knowing whether Herschel was a lover of Shakespeare. That’s because there’s pretty strong evidence that he wasn’t.
CROWE: The calendar of the correspondence of Sir John Herschel is an 800-page over-sized book, listing summaries of nearly 15,000 letters to and from John Herschel. The index, I believe, has 30,000 references in it, and I was able to check electronically to see how many time the name Shakespeare came up. The answer was, it came up three times.
SHEIR: So, we don’t know if Herschel named the moons, and, in fact, there’s evidence that he didn’t. In 1899, Lassell’s daughter told the Journal of the British Astronomical Association that the names were given by Sir John Herschel, “to whom my father applied.” One way to understand that is that Lassell thought up the names and applied to Herschel, the president of the Astronomical Society, for permission. Unfortunately, she also told the magazine she couldn’t find the letter in question. It had been laid aside during a move. Michael Crowe says he couldn’t find it either.
SHEIR: But though he stopped looking in 1998, he says even now he hasn’t lost hope.
CROWE: There’s a reasonable chance. Things keep turning up. It’s amazing how much turns up eventually. Not at all sure we can know.
SHEIR: So we leave the 19th century with no greater knowledge of how it was that the names of Shakespeare characters found their way onto the moons of Uranus. At this point, as it turned out, though, it didn’t matter. That’s because, along with naming things, another enduring human trait is our willingness and desire to follow tradition, especially traditions set long, long ago, and it would be a very long time before anyone had to raise this issue again.
SHEIR: Ninety-six years, in fact, that’s how long it would be before someone found another moon of Uranus. And 96 years is long enough, at least in America, to be considered back in the mists of time. While there would be a question raised about what the next Uranian satellite would be called, in the end, tradition, and Shakespeare, carried the day.
[CLIP of text from Gerard Kuiper, “The Fifth Satellite of Uranus,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1949:]
GERARD KUIPER: Miranda was chosen as the name for the fifth satellite. Uranus’ own children, the Titans, are not suitable for mythological reasons.
SHEIR: This is an actor reading from a journal article written in 1948 by the renowned Dutch American astronomer Gerard Kuiper.
SEARS: Kuiper is an extremely important person in the history of astronomy.
SHEIR: NASA’s Derek Sears is writing a biography of Kuiper, and, just an aside here, Sears, as you hear, uses the original Dutch pronunciation of Kuiper’s name. The rest of us say “Kuiper.” Kuiper came to the United States in 1933 and worked mostly at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory and at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. In 1944, he had taken a break from the war effort to go down to Texas and look at the night sky. He’d recently become the first person ever to realize that moons had atmospheres.
SEARS: This was revolutionary stuff.
SHEIR: And over the next couple of years, he’d go down periodically and shift the McDonald’s giant telescope from horizon to horizon, trying to confirm this hypothesis. One night in 1948…
SEARS: He pointed his telescope at Uranus. He knew that there were four satellites, there were four moons. And while he was doing this, he realized that there was a fifth planet, a fifth moon, sorry.
SHEIR: A fifth moon of Uranus.
SEARS: It was almost 100 years since Lassell had discovered the last satellite. So, you are now putting Kuiper among these prominent astronomers from the 19th and 18th centuries. This was really a big deal. This made Kuiper famous.
SHEIR: When the time came for Kuiper to name his new discovery, the decision was up in the air. Which way would he go? With Pope, with Shakespeare, or maybe take another direction entirely. Kuiper immediately ruled out naming the new moon after the quarrelsome children of Uranus.
[CLIP of text from Kuiper, “Fifth Satellite of Uranus,” continued:]
KUIPER (continuing): They have been assigned to the son of Uranus, Saturn (Kronos), who gained supreme power after wounding his father.
SHEIR: With those names off the list, and the decision now down to Shakespeare or Pope, Kuiper chose to name the moon after his daughter.
SEARS: He did have a daughter that he was very close to, and so I could imagine him thinking of that. But I don’t… I haven’t seen anything that says he did.
SHEIR: He hasn’t, but Toby Owen at the University of Hawaii has, and, as Sears points out…
SEARS: Owen was a student of Kuiper’s and probably knows things that are not in the literature.
SHEIR: So let’s assume Owen got it right and Kuiper wanted to name the moon after his daughter. At first glance, that’s fine, and it would have made Shakespeareans happy, too. If you breezed through the historical record, you’ll see that Kuiper’s daughter, who had just been born when the moon was discovered, goes by the name of Sylvia.
[CLIP of Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona:]
This night, he meaneth with a corded ladder
To climb celestial Sylvia’s chamber window,
Myself in counsel his competitor.
“Celestial Sylvia” from Two Gentlemen of Verona. What could be more perfect, right? So then, why is the fifth moon of Uranus called Miranda? What’s that all about? Well, we humans may like to name things, but just because we do, doesn’t mean they’re always going to stick.
SEARS: She became Sylvia. She was named Lucia, you know, at the christening and she lived with the name Lucy throughout her childhood. But when she was in her 20s, teaching at an international school in Jakarta, she decided to adopt a name that was more in keeping with her personality, and so, at that point, she adopted the name Sylvia.
SHEIR: Anyway, his colleagues had convinced Kuiper that it was best to keep with tradition. So once again, that left Pope and Shakespeare. Here’s what Kuiper said, when he presented his paper on discovering the moon.
[CLIP of text from Kuiper, “Fifth Satellite of Uranus,” continued:]
KUIPER (continuing): Sir John Herschel named the four bright satellites Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon. Oberon and Titania are the king and queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; Ariel and Umbriel occur in Pope’s Rape of the Lock, while Ariel is also found in Shakespeare’s Tempest. In The Tempest, Ariel is “an airy and tricksy spirit, changing shape at will to serve Prospero his master,” while Miranda is “a little cherub that did preserve me” (Prospero).
SHEIR: Up to this point, the discovery and naming of Uranian moons was a once in a while thing. Once in a lifetime, actually. But in 1986, that all changed.
[CLIP from news coverage:]
Hundreds of scientists and engineers convene here. Photographers, television crews, and other members of the press arrive. They are drawn to the laboratory by two Voyager spacecraft, electronic robots sent by NASA to explore the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn.
SHEIR: Both Voyagers had launched from Earth nine years earlier.
[CLIP from NBC News, September 5, 1977]
JOHN CHANCELLOR: It was all aboard today for Jupiter, Saturn, and the far reaches of outer space. Voyager 1, NASA’s unmanned space probe, was launched without difficulty today at Cape Canaveral. Our reporter, Roy Neal, has the story…
SHEIR: By 1986, Voyager 2 had moved past its original targets of Jupiter and Saturn, and as part of its grand tour of the universe, it was now making its way to Uranus.
[CLIP from news coverage:]
This control room will be manned for the entire mission, no matter how long it lasts.
SHEIR: The technicians at Voyager Mission Control were still receiving data from the craft and it was being handed out to interested scientists. People like Toby Owen, who was now chair of the Outer Planets Group within the International Astronomical Union’s Committee on Nomenclature. As Voyager 2 got near Uranus, he says:
OWEN: They were sending a lot of information for different instruments, but for us, it was sending images. It was very exciting. We sometimes joked with each other that it was kind of like being on Star Trek, that you’re in the spaceship, and you’re approaching a satellite, and all of a sudden, there it is. You see the surface. It’s wonderful.
SHEIR: Among the things Voyager found around Uranus were 10 new moons and the Astronomical Union had created Owen’s committee for one purpose: to gain consensus among all the interested international parties on just what to name them. A problem had cropped up in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union got the first images of the far side of the Moon, our Moon.
OWEN: The pressure was to try to find names for them, and that got a little sticky, because there was no set-up protocol at that point.
SHEIR: The problem arose over this one dark area. Up to that time…
OWEN: These dark spots were named after states of mind, so like, Tranquility, one of the seas was Tranquility.
SHEIR: This was the middle of the Cold War, though. There was prestige at stake. So, despite the convention on what to name this new area, the Soviets had other ideas.
OWEN: They wanted to name it the Sea of Moscow.
SHEIR: What to do?
OWEN: The chairman of the Planetary Sciences Section of the International Astronomical Union declared that Moscow was a “state of mind,” but it became clear that we were facing some serious problems in the future. And so, the IAU set up this Nomenclature Committee.
SHEIR: The group met multiple times over the next few years.
OWEN: We had a meeting in Kazakhstan. We also met, of course, in Pasadena. We met in Moscow.
SHEIR: Eventually doling out thousands of names and always following more or less the same process.
OWEN: Each object would have its own set of names that would somehow be related one to the other, and we would try to follow the conventions of names in the system that existed.
SHEIR: Whatever city they were in, the group would meet in a conference room and put a big picture of whatever they were naming on the wall.
OWEN: We’d have some arguments about things and then ultimately we’d reach a consensus.
SHEIR: When it came time to name the Uranian satellites, Owen said they looked through the astronomical literature and…
OWEN: We found that indeed the four brightest satellites had names that were given to them by John Herschel back in the 19th century, and what he had done was to name them after characters from Shakespeare’s plays.
SHEIR: They also knew about the names from Alexander Pope.
OWEN: I guess I’m someone who read Shakespeare plays in college, and I saw a lot of Shakespeare, but I could hardly say I read the complete works.
SHEIR: And so, with that limited knowledge set, the naming process began. The first name they settled on was Puck.
OWEN: Puck was the first small satellite that was discovered, because it was the biggest of the small satellites. And so, it was given… I’m not sure why it was given that particular name, but people liked it, so that’s the name it got.
SHEIR: Though he does recall working harder on that one, than the others.
OWEN: We were going through names from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and none of us knew the play very well. So this was a case where we were going back to the play and looking for names, and that name came up.
SHEIR: Shortly after that the group made a change that helped decide how the next nine moons got their names.
OWEN: We would again use names from the plays, but we would use female characters, that was going to be our category, and so, we began to name them. What we would do is to bring to the meeting of our little subcommittee a list of names that formed what we would call a “name bank,” and that list of names would then conform to the convention that we had adopted.
SHEIR: The next moon they named was Cordelia, then Ophelia, then Bianca—a name that gave several committee members second thoughts.
OWEN: We used the name Bianca, which happened to fall on the darkest of the group. We were teased about that one.
SHEIR: Next came Cressida and Desdemona.
OWEN: Some of them were names I just knew from my memory.
SHEIR: Followed by Juliet, Portia, and Rosalind. That’s Rosalind from As You Like It, not Rosaline from Romeo and Juliet.
OWEN: We’d choose them by consensus, which ones we actually assigned.
SHEIR: The decision to go only with women’s names got them out of one potential jam, when, as Owen remembers, someone got it into their head that they might decide to name one of the moons Bottom. He says they talked about it, but in the end, so to speak…
OWEN: We were more dignified than that. We had to be very careful that the names we chose didn’t mean something in another language that was rather offensive. We were fortunate, we think. We hope.
SHEIR: Lastly, to be completely true to the Herschel-Lassell tradition, they added one name, Belinda, from Alexander Pope.
OWEN: The order in which things were chosen was not particularly set out, as far as I recall.
SHEIR: Then came the time for naming the features.
OWEN: You’d have a map chart, which covered quite a bit of area. You’d name a crater in there, and then that would be the name for that particular area. We started with the big moons.
SHEIR: Among the largest, and certainly the most interesting, was the moon that Kuiper had discovered in 1948, Miranda.
OWEN: Of course, it comes from The Tempest. But it’s… Miranda, of course, is famous for her statement about, what a “brave new world / That has such people in ‘t!” It’s a “brave new world,” and that’s what Miranda was.
SHEIR: Miranda was the biggest challenge they faced. They knew just from looking at it that it was going to force them to dig deeply into their name bank.
OWEN: It had more surface features. It is a remarkable satellite. It looks as if it’s an object that maybe became molten, and then parts of it cooled and others didn’t. It’s a very heterogeneous surface, unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else. So, it lends itself… it asks for more names.
SHEIR: And it got them. All the craters got names from The Tempest: Alonso, Ferdinand, Francisco, Gonzalo, Prospero, Stephano, and Trinculo.
OWEN: The names for features on Miranda follow The Tempest, because she came from The Tempest, and so we were trying to keep things pretty tight there.
SHEIR: The rest of the moon’s features come from across the Shakespeare canon. There’s an oval-shaped feature named Elsinore, and another for the Forest of Arden. There’s a geological region called Mantua and another called Dunsinane. There’s a mountain slope named Verona, and long parallel grooves named for Naples and Syracuse, to honor The Tempest and Comedy of Errors.
Voyager 2 was well on its way to Neptune by the time Toby Owen and his committee finished their work. So, there’d be no more up-close discovery of Uranian moons. But that doesn’t mean the discovery was over, or the doling out of Shakespeare names, either. In fact, the next time a moon was discovered, a real Shakespeare lover was on hand to lend expertise to the naming process.
GLADMAN: I did a postdoctoral fellowship in Nice, France, for a year.
SHEIR: Today, Brett Gladman holds the Canada Research Chair in planetary astronomy. In 1995, he was a graduate student. He knew he’d be spending 1996 at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego. But before heading there, it was France.
GLADMAN: I had a very nice patio where I was staying.
SHEIR: And he liked to use it to pursue one of his favorite pastimes.
GLADMAN: One of the very few books I took with me was my complete Shakespeare. I never get time to read my Shakespeare, so I took it with me. I read my Shakespeare on my patio with my rosé wine in the evening.
SHEIR: By a total coincidence…
GLADMAN: One of the plays that I reread was The Tempest.
SHEIR: It was one of the last ones he read, so it was fresh in his mind when he went off to Palomar and its famous Hale Telescope. In California, he was teamed with another young Canadian astronomer, JJ Kevelaars, who’s now a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
KEVELAARS: What we were doing was looking by eye. Basically, we would take two images or three images, or we’d look at one image, the next image, the next. Da-dah, da-dah, da-dah. And we just… three in a row, over and over and over again, looking for anything that seemed to move.
SHEIR: One set of pictures they took was from the night of September 6, 1997, when they were looking at the outer solar system close to Uranus, searching out, ironically enough, objects in the Kuiper belt. They both left California soon after that and headed back to Canada.
KEVELAARS: I went back in my institution, flipping through them on this computer monitor, and marking down stuff that I see is real, and my colleague Brett Gladman is at his institution in Toronto, doing the same thing, trying to see these things and figure out which ones are real.
SHEIR: The series of images from that one night seemed to show something moving in a way that suggested they maybe, just might, have found two brand new moons.
KEVELAARS: And this is very, very exciting, and something you don’t tell anybody.
SHEIR: Because if you’re wrong, which you probably are, it can be quite embarrassing. So, Kevelaars and Gladman make an appointment to go back to California at the end of October, get more time on the telescope, and take another look. The way it works, JJ says, is you take a picture, and then you wait an hour to take another one, and see if anything has moved. It’s kind of like being a kid at Christmas.
KEVELAARS: The presents are there under the tree, and your parents are saying, “Well, you can take the bow off, but you have to wait an hour before you’re allowed to peel back the paper.”
SHEIR: The hour passed slowly, but the pictures finally confirmed it. They had discovered two new moons of Uranus. Soon after that they learned the naming convention. JJ says his first response was…
KEVELAARS: I better go back and read some Shakespeare, I think was actually my reaction at that time. I can’t say that I did stunningly well in English in high school, which was the last time I had encountered Shakespeare. Although I did really like it, and I enjoyed going to the Shakespeare festivals in Stratford, Ontario, which was near where I grew up.
SHEIR: So, he did what any good scientist would do.
KEVELAARS: I thought this is an opportunity to… I have to go learn something. I went to the bookstore and I bought a children’s interpretation of The Tempest. Because I wanted something I could approach, okay?
SHEIR: Brett, of course, was in no need of that kind of assistance. The technique they had used in taking these images allowed scientists to see much fainter bodies than they ever had, bringing them out of the dark like never before. Once he learned the naming convention, Brett thought back to the time on his patio in France and it came to him.
GLADMAN: What’s a Shakespearean character that lives in the dark, right? And so, Caliban leapt out right away, as, you know, a creature emerging out of the dark.
SHEIR: That was it, the first new moon of Uranus in 11 years would be named Caliban. When it came to the second one, they were getting plenty of suggestions.
GLADMAN: Everybody I knew who found out that the team had discovered the satellite, they would come up to you and say “Have you thought of X?” and they would give you some Shakespearean name.
SHEIR: Brett had his own suggestion, and that was the one that counted. He suggested they name the second moon, Sycorax.
GLADMAN: If you’re going to pair anybody with Caliban, that’s the logical name.
SHEIR: One of the senior members of the team was concerned that Sycorax never actually appears in the play, but JJ thought the name was fantastic.
KEVELAARS: I am a great Doctor Who fan. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was a tiny kid.
[CLIP from “The Christmas Invasion,” Doctor Who, December 25, 2005]
LEADER OF THE SYCORAX: Who, exactly, are you?
DAVID TENNANT as DOCTOR WHO: Well, that’s the question.
LEADER OF THE SYCORAX: I demand to know who you are.
KEVELAARS: I was immediately in favor of choosing a character from Doctor Who for naming a satellite of Uranus. This is a great idea.
GLADMAN: We felt that we would keep them as the pair, and we thought that the fainter one should be Caliban, and the brighter one should be his mother. Now, in 1999, the next year, there were more observations, and there was a set of moons that were found, and it was quickly realized that there were three or four more names that were going to be needed. Because they interacted with Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo were pulled out, and Prospero’s an obvious one.
KEVELAARS: If I’m remembering correctly, the character Trinculo is a bit of a drunkard in The Tempest. Okay, so by the time we’d gotten around to discovering enough objects that we could name Trinculo, I would say that one, we were drunk with power, and two, we were starting to look for things where we could say, “Hey, the orbit of this object, these objects have these weird orbits, they’re kind of like the drunken sailor wandering around.” So, Trinculo kind of pops out as a great name.
GLADMAN: And then, amongst the other characters the relation to Caliban isn’t as strong. You know, can’t use Miranda, so that’s why we ended up going to Setebos for the other one.
SHEIR: After Setebos, naming the next moon created an opportunity, and then a problem.
KEVELAARS: In The Tempest there’s a character called Francesco or Francisco. So, one of the satellites became named Francisco. And I have a younger daughter whose name is Catherine Frances Kevelaars, and so I can… They kind of went together. And I can say, “Okay, well, Catherine, you know, your daddy picked this name for you, so lucky you.”
SHEIR: But JJ also had another daughter, now what? Well, as it turns out…
KEVELAARS: At the time that these discoveries were happening, there was a group competing with us, running out of Hawaii. And Scott Sheppard was doing all the data analysis.
SHEIR: Today, Scott Sheppard explores small bodies in the solar system at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In 2002, in Hawaii, he was able to improve on the observations that Brett and JJ had made and confirmed the discovery of yet another moon of Uranus. When he learned the naming convention…
SHEPPARD: Yeah, I was very excited when I found out that Shakespeare was involved.
SHEIR: But that’s not because Scott was any kind of Shakespeare scholar. What he liked about the Shakespeare naming convention was that it allowed him to do something he couldn’t do back a few years ago, when he discovered some new moons of Jupiter. Back then, and in 2002, he’d always had one thought.
SHEPPARD: I thought it would be great to name something after my Mom.
SHEIR: His mother’s name: Margaret.
SHEPPARD: So, I just simply did a search for “Margaret,” which was my Mom’s name, on the Web, and “Shakespeare.” And it came up with Much Ado about Nothing. And I said that’s it, that’s what I’ll name it.
SHEIR: It was one heck of a Mother’s Day 2002 at Mrs. Sheppard’s house. Scott still had the image he’d taken that first told him this might be a moon.
SHEPPARD: I took a discovery image and I put the name “Moon Margaret” on it, and I gave her a plaque. She says she cried when she saw it. So, that was very, very touching to me.
SHEIR: And she wasn’t the only one who got this honor. Remember, JJ Kevelaars also helped discover this moon. And he still had that problem with his older daughter.
KEVELAARS: My other daughter’s name is Ruth Ann Margaret Kevelaars. And I said “Scott, this is perfect, because now I can go to my other daughter who, right now, you know, is really angry with me because she didn’t get a satellite of the planets. And I can tell her, ‘No, you do.'”
SHEIR: That was in 2003. Soon, two other moons were found and they were named Mab and Cupid. Cupid brings us to a broader question. Is there an upshot to this? Does it affect Shakespeare scholarship or Shakespeare appreciation in any way that these moons are named after Shakespeare characters? Turns out, in a small way it can.
LISA GROSSMAN: “A pair of star-cross’d lovers orbits Uranus, and when they rush to meet their fate, the duo could leave the cosmic stage littered with more bodies than the final scene of Hamlet.”
SHEIR: Lisa Grossman is a writer for New Scientist, a magazine published in London. Here she is reading a story she wrote in 2012 about the moons Cupid and Belinda.
GROSSMAN: I grew up as an astronomy kid in a Shakespeare household. My sister ended up becoming a Shakespeare educator, and I’ve always been interested in astronomy.
SHEIR: Her article focused on an academic paper exploring whether these two moons might someday collide.
GROSSMAN: The authors also noticed that they were all named for Shakespeare characters, and made a joke, in the paper itself, about how, like their namesakes, these moons might be destined for a tragic end. And that was amusing, so I took it as an excuse to have some fun with the story, “the deaths of the moons Cupid and Belinda might not bring down the curtain on Uranus’s satellites.” I had a lot more freedom to play with this one than I would of in a normal news story.
SHEIR: And given that, she thought…
GROSSMAN: Well, this looks like an opportunity to stick Shakespeare into space, which is two of my favorite things. “But just as the bloodbath in Hamlet ends with the prince’s death, Uranus’s satellites calm down after the carnage, French says.”
I did think really carefully about whether I wanted to try to keep it within one play. And I had a conversation with my sister about this, about whether I should be crossing comedies and tragedies, and Cupid is from Timon of Athens, but no one knows Timon of Athens. So, should I reference Hamlet instead, and the title is from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and is that okay? So, I thought about that a lot, and decided just to go for as many different Shakespeare plays as I could muster that I thought people would recognize.
SHEIR: So, in that regard, it does have a purpose. A broader one, an educational one, and that’s great as far as it goes. But that is not the reason why they do it, why “these earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights” give a Shakespearean “name to every fixèd star.” At least, that’s not why, is far as Derek Sears is concerned.
SEARS: When all’s said and done, I don’t really think we need names. In some branches of science, we’re very happy to just give things numbers.
SHEIR: But not here, he says, and the reason why is simple.
SEARS: I do think most astronomers have some sort of a huge romantic streak, and maybe it’s nicer to talk about, you know, “asteroid Vesta” than saying “number four.” Now, having made the decision to give every astronomical object there is out there a name, you then have a task of what name.
SHEIR: Because what’s in a name? “What’s in a name?” Well, you know the answer to that.
WITMORE: “Brave New Worlds” was written and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott was the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.
We had an enormous amount of help gathering material for this podcast. In particular, we would like to thank Jennifer Blue at the US Geological Survey, Bradley Smith of the International Astronomical Union, Dale Cruikshank of NASA’s Ames Research Center, and David DeVorkin, Curator of Telescopes at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Here at the Folger, we had help from Esther French and Georgianna Ziegler.
Our voice recreations were performed by Anthony Reuben and Elena Burger. And we had technical help from Jean Cochran and Britta Greene. Our narrator was Rebecca Sheir.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.