Monday, May 11, 2009

Venetia Phair

Isn't that a great name? She's the person who, as a girl, suggested the name Pluto for the heretofore unnamed Planet X. She died recently at the age of 90, having seen Pluto demoted to dwarf planet.

More vexing to Mrs. Phair was the persistent notion that she had taken the name from the Disney character. “It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way around,” she told the BBC. “So, one is vindicated.”

Her obituary appeared in the NY Times yesterday, but I prefer the write-up of the story in the British papers. Take it away, Daily Telegraph, with your elegant prose:

On the morning of March 14 1930 she was having breakfast at the house in Oxford in which she lived with her grandfather, Falconer Madan, the retired Librarian at the Bodleian, when he drew her attention to an article in The Times which noted that the newly found frozen planet had yet to be named.

Being keen on Greek and Roman myths, young Venetia suggested that Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld who could render himself invisible, would make a good name for the dark and remote world.

The idea so impressed her grandfather that he immediately promised to put it to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University.

Go read the rest; it's really wonderful.


Laurel Kornfeld said...

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. For more on why Pluto is a planet and worldwide efforts to overturn the demotion, visit my Pluto blog at

Laura Toepfer said...

All of this is addressed in The Pluto Files as well. But you know what? Whether Pluto is a planet or not isn't all that important to me personally. I'm mostly intrigued by the intrigue.

Laura Toepfer said...

And I should add, thanks for your comment!

Laurel Kornfeld said...

You're welcome. I plan on writinga book about Pluto myself, which I hope you will take the time to read. It's going to be a while, as it's just in the idea stage, but I'm committed to doing it. Meanwhile, another great book is "Is Pluto A Planet?" by Dr. David Weintraub.