Banannery Public

Part of this complete breakfast.

The Best of All Worlds #5: Neptune — July 7, 2013

The Best of All Worlds #5: Neptune

The Best of All Worlds

Choosing which planet is better—Uranus or Neptune—is like choosing which of your twin daughters you prefer. They’re so much alike! And how could you bring yourself to choose between them? However, I was able to make the decision for you because unlike you, dear reader, I don’t have twin daughters. So you can trust my cold, forbidding judgment in regard to these cold, forbidding gas giants.

If Neptune and Uranus were in a race to see which could get around the Sun faster, Uranus wins, hands down. But sorry Uranus, nobody really cares. In a race to see which planet is the better of the two, it’s twin sister Neptune by a nose. Both are distant spheres of gas and ice, circling the Sun in hypothermic mediocrity, but Neptune has a few positive traits that make it more worthy of its planetary title.

First of all, Neptune has a pretty good moon. Unlike Uranus, which has amassed a rabble of lousy Shakespearean satellites, Neptune has focused nearly all of its extracurricular efforts on capturing a single quality moon which astronomers aptly named Triton, after the son of the Roman god Neptune.

*WHOOOOSSHH* That's the sound effect I imagine for the Great Dark Spot as it zips across the face of Neptune.
*WHOOOOSSHH* That’s the sound effect I imagine for the Great Dark Spot as it zips across the face of Neptune.

Which brings us, stream-of-consciousness style, to the way Neptune itself got its name. This is my favourite trinket of Neptunian trivia. Neptune was the first and only planet to be theoretically predicted before it was discovered. A British astronomer named John Couch Adams and a French astronomer named Urbain Le Verrier independently calculated that the orbit of Uranus was being affected by the gravitational pull of yet another planet. Le Verrier’s friends at the Berlin Observatory were the ones to identify the new planet first. Initially, Le Verrier wanted to name the planet Neptune. Then he decided that this name was failing to feed his mammoth hubris, so he renamed it Le Verrier. Meanwhile, the British were all in a huff that their man Adams wasn’t getting his share of the credit, so finally all the astronomers agreed that Le Verrier’s name was stupid, that the planet’s name would be Neptune, and that everybody should get a trophy for finding it.

Yes, the history of Neptune’s discovery is a tale of political intrigue. That in itself makes it better than Uranus. Beyond this, I suppose Neptune is the more beautiful planet. For some reason as yet unknown, it has escaped becoming a bland cyan orb and has blossomed into a beautiful azure-blue marble, dotted with dark storms and wisps of white clouds. In a beauty contest, Neptune wins the prize over her drab twin sister.

But you know, if you think Uranus is better than Neptune, I will listen to your arguments, perhaps even without falling asleep.

Our rankings so far:

8. Venus
7. Mercury
6. Uranus
5. Neptune
1–4. ???

Leave a comment below expressing your opinion on Uranus and Neptune, then scroll back up and vote for the best planet and the worst planet in our Solar System!

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The Best of All Worlds #6: Uranus — February 12, 2013

The Best of All Worlds #6: Uranus

The Best of All Worlds

Ah yes, Uranus—the butt of all planetary jokes. It’s also the most boring planet in our Solar System. Uranus is like your accountant uncle who spends his evenings sipping V8 juice and organizing his stamp collection. When Voyager 2 swung by Uranus back in 1986, it found a bland, teal, featureless gas giant surrounded by its own collection of uninteresting moons.

You see, in our ranking of the planets from worst to first, we have moved from the ghastly realm of the awful worlds (Venus and Mercury) to the dreary realm of the mediocre worlds. Of these pedestrian planets, Uranus is the worst by the slightest of slight margins. I will admit that I hemmed and hawed on this decision for a while. (Though not the entire three months since my last blog entry; that gap was just me being lazy.)

Uranus
The miscoloured cue ball of the Solar System.

But here’s the deal with Uranus: it’s not a bad planet per se. In fact, it’s the most Cessna-friendly of all the planets, apart from our own Earth. It’s just that there’s only one interesting feature about the planet: it’s lying on its side like a beached whale. Its poles point along the plane of the Solar System instead of perpendicular to it, like all the other planets. Also, it has rings, but so do all the other gas giants, so that’s not remarkable. Also, its moons are named after characters in Shakespeare’s plays—Titania and Oberon being the largest of the moons—but that’s mainly because astronomers got bored of naming moons after obscure Greek nymphs and demigods. Also, it’s tealish-blue because of methane gas, but whatever.

So yeah. What more is there to say? Uranus, everybody.

Our rankings so far:

8. Venus
7. Mercury
6. Uranus
1–5. ???

Vote below for the best and worst planets in our Solar System! (Hint: Uranus is not the correct answer for either.)

The Best of All Worlds #7: Mercury — November 14, 2012

The Best of All Worlds #7: Mercury

When you wouldn’t even make it as a remarkable moon, you’re certainly not going to make it as a remarkable planet.

Sorry Mercury. We still bros?

Along with Venus, the planet Mercury is one of two inferior planets—that is, planets closer to the Sun than our own Earth. They are inferior in many other ways as well. We’ve already established that Venus is the worst planet; Mercury escapes that sort of infamy only because our expectations are lower.

This isn’t the Moon, it’s Mercury. I promise.

Unlike the “sister Earth,” Venus, nobody expected Mercury to amount to much. From ancient times, it was obvious that Mercury was hanging around right next to the Sun. Once Copernicus figured out that the Sun was the centre of our (aptly named) Solar System, astronomers realized that Mercury was way too close to the Sun for anything good to be happening there. In fact, Mercury orbits the Sun in 88 days in an eccentric orbit at an average distance one-third that of the Earth’s orbit. As you sciencey types have already figured out, this means that Mercury receives sunlight at nine-ish times the intensity of the Earth. Now I know what you’re thinking: on Mercury it would be so easy to roast ants with a magnifying glass! Sorry to crush your twisted hopes, you horrible creep, but the ants would already be dead, as the surface temperature Sun-side soars to above 400° C. Also there is hardly any atmosphere on Mercury, so the poor ants would suffocate before you could even begin to torture them—unless you fashioned for them, out of bubble wrap, hundreds of ant-sized astronaut suits.

Now, if you and your ants decided to take shelter on the dark side of Mercury, you would be cooled by a refreshing surface temperature of less than –150° C. And there’s probably even water ice hiding in a few polar craters! Yes, Mercury is a world of extremes. It’s also extremely small for a planet. It’s smaller than the two largest moons in the Solar System, Ganymede and Titan. But at the same time, it’s the second densest of all the planets and moons in the Solar System, after the Earth. Crazy!

In appearance, Mercury looks like our Moon: pocked and pitted with craters. Not much to write home about. In fact, there really isn’t a lot of exciting stuff going on around Mercury. It’s basically a big round inert rock zipping about the Sun. Boooooring. But at least Mercury has lived up to our low expectations, unlike crappy Venus.

Our rankings so far:

8. Venus
7. Mercury
1–6. ???

Vote below for the best and worst planet in our Solar System! Listen to your heart and don’t let anyone tell you what to think! (P. S. Venus is the worst and if you think otherwise you’re wrong)

The Best of All Worlds #8: Venus — November 12, 2012

The Best of All Worlds #8: Venus

For millennia, Venus was known as the Morning Star and the Evening Star. It’s the brightest object in the night sky other than the Moon, and it can even be seen during the daytime if you know just where to look for it. Second from the Sun, Venus was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. It became a symbol of femininity. In early science fiction, Venus was depicted as a warm and lush planet, a paradise of sorts. After all, it was the same size as Earth, but closer to the Sun while still remaining in the habitable zone of the star. Its apparent cloud cover must conceal a tropical climate, a world of wonders—that was the thinking. Surely Venus must be the best planet.

Beauty on the outside, a Beast on the inside.

Wrong. Venus is the worst planet.

In 1967, the Soviet probe Venera 4 entered the atmosphere of Venus. It didn’t even reach the surface because the atmosphere was so dense that the probe’s descent was slowed down and its batteries died. But even 26 km above the surface, the venerable Soviet robot measured an atmospheric pressure 22 times that of the sea-level pressure on Earth. Even at that altitude, the temperature had already soared to over 260° C, and the atmosphere consisted of over 90% carbon dioxide. Subsequent Venera probes would land on the surface only to be crushed by a pressure of 92 Earth atmospheres (and eventually melted into bubbling blobs by the infernal heat).

It turns out that our paradise sister planet is actually a ghastly hellscape.

What went wrong? How could Earth’s twin sister, more coddled by the Sun than even the Earth itself, end up a horrid mess? The answer is a runaway greenhouse effect. The carbon dioxide content in Venus’ atmosphere has led the planet to cook itself alive. Heck, you can’t even float a cloud city on top of the dense atmosphere because the upper clouds of sulfuric acid would batter your city and eat holes in it, holes which you would fall through and then be crushed and cooked and corroded to death before your body could be dashed to pieces against the volcanic rocks.

The surface of Venus can only be inhabited by infernal saw-toothed monsters like the Venera 13 lander.

And that’s why Venus is the worst planet. There was so much potential here, so much Earth-likeness, so much romance. And Venus squandered it all. Heck, it can’t even rotate in the right direction (it rotates clockwise instead of counter-clockwise like a good planet would do). Venus is a failure of a planet and we should all be ashamed of it, like that creepy uncle in the old family photo that your parents refuse to discuss.

But hey, feel free to vote for another planet as the worst. You’re among friends here; it’s okay to be wrong. And vote for the best planet too, while you’re at it.

The Best of All Worlds: Ranking the Eight Planets from Worst to First — November 7, 2012

The Best of All Worlds: Ranking the Eight Planets from Worst to First

Sibling rivalries are the best. They consist of irrational conflict, which is the best sort of conflict there is. And the most enormous and irrational sibling rivalry is the rivalry among the eight planets in our solar system family. Which is the best planet, and which is the worst? There are a lot of delightful astronomy facts to consider, but I’ll do all the considering for you and tell you the correct answers. You will learn the truth, and I will have justified paying another year of rent for this blog’s domain name.

That’s right: eight planets. Count ’em! Eight.

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Everyone’s got a favourite. For some of you, your favourite is Pluto, and I’ve already offended you because I completely agree with the IAU that Pluto is not a planet. Well, tough beans. The fact is that we have to come up with some sort of definition for a planet. You can’t just say something is a planet just because it’s got the same name as your favourite Disney character. After all, our stellar neighbours have scads of planets of their own, so naturally we need to determine the standards for planethood. And if that means we kick a yelping Pluto to the curb, so be it. At some point, you gotta clean up the neighbourhood.

Besides, if Pluto were a planet, it would be the worst planet. It’s a dinky ball that Clyde Tombaugh discovered by chance even though it’s smaller than our Moon. What we didn’t know until recently was that Pluto is just another pebble in the Kuiper Belt of pebbles lying beyond the orbit of Neptune. And it’s not even the largest pebble. So it’s a dwarf planet now, and your grandkids are going to laugh at you for thinking anything different.

But enough about Pluto. Let’s get down to the real planets. You’re probably dying to know what the best planet is, right? Well, I’m going to string you along for a while, David Letterman style, by counting down the eight planets from worst to first. In the meantime, in honour of the recent American election, vote on which planet is the best and which is the worst! Your vote will have about as much influence on the outcome of my analysis as it did on the outcome of the Presidential election, but that didn’t stop you then, did it?

Let’s go!

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