The Trials of Pluto

  by  |  May 12th, 2009  |  Published in All, Blog


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I don’t know how I could have missed this. It is unthinkable. Did you miss it too?

The passing of Pluto as a planet was bad enough, but now the girl who grew up and old, the girl most famous for naming Pluto, has also passed to the other side.

Yes, folks, Venetia Phair died on April 30, 2009, 79 years since she first thought of naming the long sought and then newly discovered planet Pluto.

Astronomers had been searching for the so-called Planet X for decades. When it was first photographed by the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, astronomers from around the world were electrified. They spent a great deal of time arguing over the name. Eleven year old Venetia’s grandfather, a retired Oxford librarian, wondered to his grand-daughter what it should be called. Over breakfast, Venetia asked “Why not call it Pluto?” The grandfather told an astronomer, who thought it was an excellent name; he said that the Royal Astronomical Society had spent an entire day discussing the name and did not come up with anything nearly as good. The astronomer telegraphed the Lowell Observatory (named after Percival Lowell) and they agreed it was a perfect name – it would memorialize the place it was discovered with the P-L in Pluto also standing for Percival Lowell. After much controversy in the astronomy world, the name was eventually adopted.

What is in a name?

Walt Disney, like everyone else, was captivated by the name. He named Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. Victoria came to be irritated by the incorrect assumption that she had named the planet after the Disney dog. No, she understood that Pluto, as a Roman god, matched the Roman god names of all the other planets. She also knew that the Roman Pluto was the elusive master of a cold, dark, hidden place.

Mythology and astronomy ran in the family. Victoria’s great uncle succeeded in naming Mars’ moons – Phobos and Deimos, fear and terror, the two companions of Mars the war god.

Venetia was alive to see her planet demoted to a planetoid. But she was also alive to see the planetoids honored with a special name – plutoids. Venetia was honored by having an asteroid and a key instrument for exploring Pluto named after her. Her naming genius was memorialized in the Periodic Table of Elements with element 94 – plutonium.

Farewell, Venetia, and thanks for a plentitude of plutoids to please us for posterity.

Elsewhere on the Web:

Venetia Phair Dies at 90; as a Girl, She Named Pluto
-New York Times

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Responses

  1. Laurel Kornfeld says:

    May 12th, 2009 at 5:00 pm (#)

    It should be noted that the IAU’s controversial demotion of Pluto is very likely not the last word on the subject and in fact represents only one interpretation in an ongoing debate. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet.

  2. Eliene says:

    May 12th, 2009 at 6:06 pm (#)

    Interesting – I love Pluto and happy to hear that Pluto’s plumpness may be the undoing of his undoing! THanks!

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