Oh no! The International Astronomical Union has been lying to us all these years! What is this world coming to?

“These explanations are entirely bogus. They’re made up.”

That’s what the Kiwi Hellenist, Peter Gainsford, says about the International Astronomical Union’s incorrect explanations for the names of the planets.

But how could the explanations be entirely bogus? Scientists don’t just make things up! Not that we expect astronomers to be experts in classical linguistics, any more than we would expect classicists or linguists to be experts in astronomy. But still—getting six wrong out of six is just unacceptable.

Gainsford explains why they’re wrong, why it matters, and the larger context about planetary names in the ancient world. For one example, let’s look at Jupiter. Gainsford quotes the IAU as saying “The largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans; he was the most important deity in both pantheons.” He then observes that no less an authority than WaPo concludes that “Jupiter shares a title with the king of the gods because it’s the solar system’s giant,” but…

Ancient astronomers certainly did not know Jupiter’s size. They had no way of measuring its radius or mass. This is from the science column, by the way: this writer wasn’t just ignoring ancient evidence, they were trying really hard to avoid imagining how the planets look when you don’t have a telescope.

Anyway, read the entire article. It’s short, informative, and even entertaining.

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning