1 Comment »Posted on Thursday 7 May 2009 at 9:11 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

What were you doing when you were eleven? I was just starting high school having broken my wrist the night before Princess Diana died. Whilst stumbling bleary eyed into my parents bedroom, sporting a plaster cast, and breaking the news of the car crash is still very much a vivid memory it is hardly anything to go down in the annals of history.

The same can’t be said for Venetia Phair who died on the 30th April aged 90. In 1930, aged just eleven, she became the unlikely heroine of world astronomy when she offered the name for a newly discovered planet. Pluto was named over the breakfast table. The story goes that a young Venetia was in Oxford having breakfast with her grandfather Falconer Madan, the retired librarian of The Bodleian Library in the town. In a highly middle class moment the tale tells of Madan reading The Times and relaying the fact that a new planet had been discovered and was yet to be named. The young Venetia who, in an interview with the BBC in 2006, said “I was quite interested in Greek and Roman myths and legends at the time,” suggested that that the planet should bear the name of Pluto, The God of The Underworld. And it stuck.

Venetia Phair, the woman who named Pluto.

Madan just happened to be chums with Herman Turner, Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, who also just so happened to be attending a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society who were discussing possible names for the newly discovered celestial body. Venetia’s suggestion was eventually passed to Clyde Tombaugh, the original discoverer of the planet and Pluto was officially adopted.

What was her reward for such a landmark moment? Five pounds in pocket money from her granddad. It might not sound like much but one estimate puts that at roughly £230 in today’s money, not too shabby for a quick comment over the breakfast table. There was some suggestion that she had named the planet after the Disney character Pluto but it was subsequently proven that her suggestion came first.

Then in 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto’s rank, robbing it of planetary status, instead relegating it to the lowly newly coined group of dwarf planets. All Phair had to say was “I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”

What happened to the only woman to ever name a ‘planet’ and only the third person to do so in the history of modern civilisation? She went on to study Mathematics at Cambridge and went on to lecture in economics.

So next time you are having idle chit chat over the morning papers, tread carefully, if you’ve got the right connections you may just find yourself indelibly marked on the pages of history.

  1. One Comment

  2. The debate over Pluto’s planet status is not over. Please do not blindly accept the controversial IAU demotion, which was done by only four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists. The IAU decision was immediately rejected in a formal petition of 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 broad planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. The spherical part is important because objects become round when they are large enough to be pulled into a round shape by their own gravity–a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids. Interestingly, Stern met Venetia in England several years ago. It’s too bad she won’t be around to see New Horizons get to Pluto because the images it will send us will definitively illustrate that Pluto is a full fledged planet.

    By Laurel Kornfeld on Friday 8 May, 2009 at 9:05 pm

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