Actually, the most savvy astronomers you know, even professors, will probably get most of these wrong. These facts may be basic, but they’re strangely esoteric. I’ve culled these down from the 13 puzzlers on my page in this month’s Astronomy magazine.
This reminds me of my favorite spelling challenges for literate friends or writers. Ask the people whose command of English you most respect to spell minuscule, fluorescent and restaurateur. I wish I could ask you, Dear Reader, but I’ve already spilled the beans, so you’ll have to try these on your friends.
Most college grads get ‘em all wrong. You can’t blame them. People spell it miniscule because they logically think that it contains “mini” instead of its actual buried word “minus.” And since nearly every word with an adjacent u and o puts the “o” first, well, “flourescent” can seem right, but it isn’t. Finally, most people imagine that “restaurant” appears within the word that means a restaurant owner. But restaurateur has no N.
Just as English majors enjoy such linguistic puzzles, I’ll bet that you find these celestial challenges more fun than even barroom brawling. Here goes:
1. As Pluto orbits the Sun, to which planet does it come closest?
2. Which two planets have the greatest chance of colliding?
3. Which famous celestial body has the shortest life expectancy?
4. What constellation lies within the Zodiac for astronomy but not astrology?
5. What celestial body comes closest to not spinning at all?
6. Where’s Puck?
7. The Moon’s dark “seas” are either emotions (e.g. Sea of Tranquility) or…what?
1. Pluto comes closer to Uranus than to Neptune. The reason is fascinating. Looking down from above, Pluto’s lopsided path appears to cross Neptune’s. But seen in 3-D, Pluto is then high above the Solar System’s plane. Their odd stable resonance makes Pluto perform exactly two orbits of the Sun just as Neptune makes three. They are connected in a strange way that keeps them permanently far apart.
2. Venus doesn’t deserve to smash into anything, since it has the most perfectly round orbit of any planet. But Mercury is not so well-behaved. Its orbit – already the most lopsided – wildly changes shape. Influence from far-away Jupiter will eventually make its path so elliptical that it will swing out to Venus. Then those worlds may collide.
3. Phobos – the closest moon to any planet – is falling. Recent research suggests that it will disintegrate and crash onto Mars just 10.4 million years from now. If humans then have Martian colonies, the meaning of Phobos – “fear” – will be spookily prophetic. (Did you say Halley’s Comet? Get full credit. Comets don’t live long, either.)
4. Nobody says, “Hi, I’m an Ophiuchus,” even though the Sun spends about three weeks a year there, compared to just a week in Scorpius.
5. You could walk faster than Venus rotates. It’s the slowest-spinning object in the known universe.
6. All of Uranus’ 27 moons are Shakespearean characters.
7. The dark blotches on the Moon were long thought to be seas of water, and were named by Giovanni Riccioli in 1651. Incongruously, they were all named for either emotions (Sea of Crises) or weather phenomena (Ocean of Storms).
Yes, it’s a strange universe.