(Roughly) Daily

“Happy accidents are real gifts”*…

Fresco by Bertini, “Galileo and the Doge of Venice”

On the morning of July 25, 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope at Saturn and was surprised to find that it appeared to be flanked by two round blobs or bumps, one on either side. Unfortunately, Galileo’s telescope wasn’t quite advanced enough to pick out precisely what he had seen (his observations are now credited with being the earliest description of Saturn’s rings in astronomical history), but he nevertheless presumed that whatever he had seen was something special. And he wanted people to know about it.

Keen to announce his news and thereby secure credit for whatever it was he had discovered, Galileo sent letters to his friends and fellow astronomers. This being Galileo, the announcement was far from straightforward:


Each message that Galileo sent out contained little more than that jumbled string of letters, which when rearranged correctly spelled out the Latin sentence, “altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi”—or “I have observed that the highest planet is threefold.”

As the outermost planet known to science at the time, Saturn was the “highest planet” in question. And unaware that he had discovered its rings, Galileo was merely suggesting to his contemporaries that he had found that the planet was somehow divided into three parts. Announcing such a discovery in the form of an anagram might have bought Galileo some time to continue his observations, however, but there was a problem: Anagrams can easily be misinterpreted.

One of those to whom Galileo sent a letter was the German scientist Johannes Kepler. A keen astronomer himself, Kepler had followed and supported Galileo’s work for several years, so when the coded letter arrived at his home in Prague he quickly set to work solving it. Unfortunately for him, he got it completely wrong.

Kepler rearranged Galileo’s word jumble as “salve, umbistineum geminatum Martia proles,” which he interpreted as “be greeted, double-knob, children of Mars.” His solution was far from perfect (umbistineum isn’t really a grammatical Latin word, for one thing), but Kepler was nevertheless convinced that, not only had he correctly solved the riddle, but Galileo’s apparent discovery proved a theory he had been contemplating for several months.

Earlier in 1610, Galileo had discovered the four so-called “Galilean moons” of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Although we now know that Jupiter has several dozen moons of varying shapes, sizes, and orbits, at the time the announcement of just four natural satellites had led Kepler to presume that there must be a natural progression in the heavens: the Earth has one moon; Jupiter, two places further out from the Earth, has four; and sat between the two is Mars, which Kepler theorized must surely have two moons, to maintain the balanced celestial sequence 1, 2, 4 and so on (his only question was whether Saturn had six or eight).

Kepler got the anagram wrong, and the presumption that Jupiter only had four moons had been wrong. Yet as misguided as both these facts were, the assumption that Kepler made based on both of them—namely, that Mars had two moons—was entirely correct. Unfortunately for Kepler, his theory would not be proved until long after his death, as the two Martian moons Phobos and Deimos (named after Ares’s sons in Greek Mythology) were not discovered until 1877, by the American astronomer Asaph Hall.

Nevertheless, a misinterpretation of the anagram had accidentally predicted a major astronomical discovery of the 19th century, nearly 300 years before it occurred…

Serendipity in science: “How A Misinterpreted Anagram Predicted The Moons of Mars.”

(For an account of Isaac Newton’s use of anagrams in his scientific communications, see here.)

* David Lynch


As we code and decode, we might recall that it was on this date in 1781 that English astronomer William Herschel detected every schoolboy’s favorite planet, Uranus, in the night sky (though he initially thought it was a comet); it was the first planet to be classified as such with the aid of a telescope.  In fact, Uranus had been detected much earlier– but mistaken for a star: the earliest likely observation was by Hipparchos, who (in 128 BC) seems to have recorded the planet as a star for his star catalogue, later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest.  The earliest definite sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed observed it at least six times, cataloguing it as the star 34 Tauri.

Herschel named the planet in honor of his King: Georgium Sidus (George’s Star), an unpopular choice, especially outside England; argument over alternatives ensued.  Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode came up with the moniker “Uranus,” which was adopted throughout the world’s astronomical community by 1850.

 Uranus, photographed by Voyager 2 in 1986.


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