Scientists recently discovered something curious about Uranus. Unlike our static magnetosphere, which stands still and protects us from the ravages of solar radiation, Uranus has a magnetosphere that shifts around its surface. On a daily basis, its invisible solar shield slides open and closed like possessed robotic blinds over what amounts to nearly sixteen Earths’ worth of surface area, alternately protecting and exposing swaths of its icy interior to caustic solar winds.
As anyone who’s read the rest of these missives or had more than half a beer with me in the last six months can gather, I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolving state of your everyday human being. The ongoing battle of being a person subject to modern life. The silent Earthling war. One central idea that’s been tangled throughout trying to make sense of this mess we’re in is openness.
Uranus was discovered on March 13, 1781 by William Herschel. Though the featureless blue sentry can be seen with the naked eye, its distance from Earth renders it dim and its distance from the Sun makes its orbit seem long to the point of stillness. It takes our distant, icy cousin 84 years to complete a revolution around the Sun. A single year there can last more than 30,000 days. Due to these factors, Uranus went undiscovered for some time, thought to be another static star. Herschel, however, noted over a year of observation that this dim, distant pinprick of light, strewn among a sea of millions of other dim, distant, pinpricks of light, moved. Not only did it move, but it moved in a planetary orbit.
After some of the back-and-forth that seems typical for the time, it was named. A Roman God, a British King, and Herschel himself were all put forth as suitable tributes for the newfound planet. In the end, Johann Bode, a German astronomer, proposed naming it after the father of Saturn—as Saturn had been named after the father of Jupiter—and Uranus, or Ouranos in Greek Mythology—was born.
True to its mysterious roots, it would be hundreds of years before we understood much of what we know about Uranus. When Voyager II photographed it in 1986—nearly two hundred years after its discovery—the images portrayed an almost comically featureless blue disc. Pale, pastel blue, even. Not even bearing the panache of a cobalt or cerulean.
It was chided for its humble exterior, being absent the sweeping rings of Saturn or volatile, swirling, planet-sized storms of Jupiter. But as our scientific powers increased, so did our perspective. The deployment of manmade wonders of celestial observation like the Hubble Telescope allowed mankind to see much more of Uranus. As time went on, scientists witnessed and catalogued a system of rings, a banded atmosphere, and its fair share of outlandish alien weather, such as diamond storms, which are exactly what they sound like.
Though its harsh atmosphere and environs guarantee Uranus will likely never see action as a secondary home for wayward, displaced Earthlings, its evolution in our minds since 1781 is illustrative of the transformative power of information—the immutability of even the most fickle truths. Uranus could’ve been written off centuries ago. Herschel could’ve reached the same conclusion his predecessors had and considered Uranus no more than another star. He could have blanched furthermore in the face of more intensive investigation and stopped at classifying it as a comet, which many of his colleagues thought it to be. But rather, William Herschel and the scientific community of the time continued to observe this strange body and discovered, quite literally, another world.
Because of one person glued to a telescope in their back garden, the boundaries of our solar system were forever expanded. Because of the perseverance of observation, the very definition of our place in the universe was inexorably altered. Initially, I emerged from reading about Herschel’s story feeling that it produced a value proposition so simple as to be impervious to erosion or alteration over any length of time.
Observation, when combined with time, will develop an accumulation of truth.
On its face, this seems like a sure path to enlightenment. If mankind ultimately seeks truth, we can look no further than William Herschel and Uranus to see how to reverse-engineer the secret sauce. All civilization needs to do to find enlightenment and peace is dutifully, unflinchingly observe the world around us.
But it’s not that simple, is it? We don’t have to ardently scavenge the observable world for information anymore, because of the interconnectedness we’re experiencing in the digital age, we’re bathing in it. By virtue of taking part in modern society, we’re each floating in an endless sea of knowledge, with no purchase or set orientation. We’re left to define our own codes and filters to cut down on the flotsam, but more than ever, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re experiencing a massive, collaborative drowning.
But perhaps that’s simply the way the math works out when this unprecedented access to information is factored into Herschel’s equation. In this day and age, bombardment may simply be the price one pays for openness and observation. In the face of that unceasing squall, maybe it does come down to each individual’s tolerance. For every excitable nerd who found the discovery of Uranus thrilling, maybe there were three jaded fatalists who thought we were doing just fine without another whole planet to worry about.
In “The Planets”, Gustav Holst titled the movement centered around Uranus “Uranus, The Magician”. Looking to Greek mythology for an explanation, Uranus is actually one of the more low-key gods in terms of flashy, anthropomorphic trickery. His role in the Greek creation myth was largely that of a father. He’d act as the sky, covering the Earth to mate with Gaia, eventually becoming a permanent installation, exercising—somewhat appropriately—a more low-key brand of magic than turning into a goat or hurling bolts of lightning from one’s cloud couch. As Uranus’s eventual brand of mythological magic was to act as a boundary for our understanding of the world, maybe we’re meant to do the same thing for ourselves. To define our individual worlds by the information we choose to let in and how much truth we’re capable of accepting.
Once again, I’ve emerged on the other side of one of these things with more questions than answers.
But, once again, as if by a tiny magic all its own, a passage in a Joan Didion book I happened to be reading leapt out and spoke for me:
And because I’m not totally without a sense of humor, I recommend a cursory look at Uranus in Greek mythology.
As it turns out, he was a real asshole.