Asteroids are pretty well understood—they’re objects that orbit the Sun but don’t show the disk of a planet. But the word asteroid was still a bit of a mystery. Where did it come from? Who coined it, and why?
Thankfully, this mystery of the universe might now be solved. Clifford Cunningham, world expert on asteroids, has spent years researching where the moniker asteroid came from. William Herschel, a court astronomer to King George III, is often given credit for naming asteroids, but Cunningham says that’s not what happened at all. Rober Nolin of the Sun Sentinal reports that Herschel did observe asteroids in 1802 and was completely baffled as to what they were. But he couldn’t come up with a name for them.
So the Sunday before the Royal Society meeting, Herschel appealed to Charles Burney Sr., a poet with whom he was collaborating on an educational poem about the cosmos. Burney considered the question and that night, by candlelight, penned a letter to his son, Greek expert Charles Burney Jr. The elder Burney suggested the words “asteriskos” or “stellula” to describe the new celestial objects.
Charles Burney, Jr., came back with the term “asteroid.”
But the term didn’t catch on quickly. Astronomers immediately dismissed the word, says Cunningham. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the word was accepted by scientists. And today, we use the word all the time. We just credit the wrong guy for its invention.
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