Jupiter, the Deceptive Planet

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When doing research for the piece I wrote yesterday about how Jupiter is the best planet (not counting Earth), I came across an ominous headline in an 1880 edition of The New York Times: “A Deceptive Planet.”

Here we go. Scientists observing Jupiter 135 years ago, it seems, found the planet’s whorling, colorful blanket of clouds and anti-hurricanes to be perplexing, if not outright maddening. Here’s an excerpt from the essay I particularly liked, with spacing added to relieve your eyeballs of 19th-century typesetting:

It was generally hoped that, in couse [sic] of time, this much respected orb would see the error of his ways, and cease to assume the appearance of an inebriated planet.

Sad to relate, however, he has gone from bad to worse, and is just now showing, side by side with the red spot complained of, a number of white ones, which give his countenance an appearance truly sad to behold. No wonder that quiet, staid astronomers, who, from joking, stand aghast at such an exhibition.

For many years Jupiter has held a deservedly high place in their estimation, and they had come to regard him as a globe of such regular habits that he might be depended upon in any emergency. They had long ago declared him to be as ‘cool as a cucumber,’ and were half inclined to allot both atmosphere and inhabitants to him, when he breaks out in this unexpected way.

All their calculations are consequently upset. He may be in boiling heat for all we know, a deceptive planet who has attempted to look calm and cold while all the time he has been in a state of furious conflagration. This teaches astronomers to be chary in future of giving a good character to any heavenly body.

If Jupiter be so bad as this, what may be expected of stars that have no reputation to lose?

(As an aside, who knew ‘cool as a cucumber’ had such deep etymological roots? It traces back to 1732, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.)