Monday, January 19, 2009

"Naming Pluto"--a film

Venetia Burney Phair

A short film, Naming Pluto, by Ginita Jimenez.

This is the story of the Venetia Burney Phair, the only person alive to have ever named a planet. As an 11-year-old Oxford schoolgirl in March 1930, she came up with the suggestion for the name of the newly discovered Planet X over a family breakfast and making a unique contribution to scientific history. On August 24 2006, Venetia witnesses another moment in Pluto’s life, when the International Astronomical Union formally downgrades Pluto to a dwarf planet, splitting the scientific community and undoing 70 years of learning for millions of children around the world. This film focuses on a previously undocumented chapter of astronomical history and is privy to exclusive interviews with Venetia and her collection of impeccably preserved scrap books painstakingly managed by her grandfather, Falconer Madan, at the time of Planet X’s discovery. Telegrams, letters, photographs and 1930’s press cuttings support his granddaughter’s involvement in astronomical history. Weeks following Pluto's demotion Sir Patrick Moore, CBE, renowned author and astronomer invites Venetia to view Pluto through his home telescope but because of its vast distance from Earth, a conclusive viewing of the planet does not materialise. Venetia waits one year later for another opportunity to view Pluto, this time at the Science Observatory in Herstmonceux, England. And bizarrely, on the eve of her 89th birthday. The film also includes interviews from Sir Patrick Moore, Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society and the support of Nasa, the Bodleian Library Oxford and Cambridge University. This is Naming Pluto.

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Naming Pluto (Review)


Ian O'Neill

January 17th, 2009


Naming Pluto explores the chain of events that lead to Pluto's naming and in 2007 sees Venetia Phair viewing Pluto for the very first time through a telescope, on her 89th birthday, 77 years after Pluto's discovery. A wonderful, intimate look into the story behind how Pluto got its name. A review of the short film directed and produced by Ginita Jimenez, distributed by Father Films.

In recent years, Pluto has seen its status change from being a planet to what many people view as a planetary underclass. The reasons behind this have been set out by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to cater for the increasing number of Solar System bodies being discovered; the traditional nine planets have had to make room for a growing minor planet population. Unfortunately, Pluto was at the front line as it inhabits a region of space dominated by the gas giant Neptune, plus thousands of other Kuiper belt objects. Although the mysterious body lost its planetary status (as it does not have the ability to "clear its own orbit"), it has taken the title of "dwarf planet" and now has an entire class of object named in its honour: "Plutoids".

However, the recent tumultuous history of the traditional "9th planet" has not impacted the fascination we have for Pluto. It has, and always will be, viewed with intrigue and wonder.

The key to Pluto's romantic tale begins in the year 1930 when a mysterious heavenly was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, a 23 year-old astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. However, the honour of naming Pluto didn't rest on Tombaugh's shoulders. Over 5000 miles away in Oxford (UK) an 11 year old girl was having breakfast with her grandfather, wondering what this newly discovered planet should be called…

Naming Pluto starts out with some stunning visuals from 2006 of NASA's New Horizons Pluto mission launching from Cape Canaveral. Throughout the opening tour of the Solar System, we can hear the voice of Venetia Burney as she is interviewed by NASA Public Affairs officer Edward Goldstein during the launch.

When Goldstein asks whether she had ever seen Pluto through a telescope, the clear and articulate voice of Venetia replies, "I don't think I have. I've just seen a photograph." And so the journey begins, where Venetia explains her fascination with Pluto and a number of experts (including the enigmatic Sir Patrick Moore) help to explain the facts behind the discovery of Pluto to the scientific endeavour of the search for "Planet X".

One of the key moments is when Venetia is describing when she decided on the name for the heavenly body. At age 11, had an acute interest in ancient mythology, so she chose the name because Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld; a fitting name considering the cold, dark nature of Pluto's 248 year orbit. In a fortuitous chain of events, her grandfather, a former librarian of Oxford University's Bodleian Library, passed the suggestion via letter to Professor Herbert Hall Turner saying that his granddaughter had chosen a "thoroughly suitable name: PLUTO." Hall Turner, thrilled with the candidate name, sent Venetia's idea to colleagues in the USA, at the Lowell Observatory.

Pouring a cup of tea, Venetia recounts that historic day in 1930. "It was about 8 o'clock and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather," she says very matter of factually. "My grandfather, as usual, opened the paper, The Times, and in it he read that a new planet had been discovered. He wondered what it should be called. We all wondered. And then I said, "why not call it Pluto?" And the whole thing stemmed from that."

A special delight is when Venetia visits St. Anne's Primary School in Surrey to participate in their class project all about Pluto. It goes to show that even young school children have fallen under Pluto's spell. One 9 year-old pupil, Katie, shares her concerns about Pluto's demotion, "Some people say that Pluto isn't a real planet, so I'm looking forward to Venetia coming because I want to find out if that's true."

Legendary astronomer Sir Patrick Moore enthusiastically gives his views on Pluto too, having co-authored a 1980 book with discoverer Tombaugh called Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto, he is the ideal character to defend the demotion from planet to dwarf planet by the IAU saying, "It's not demoted! [...] you can call it whatever you like. It's there!" I have been a huge fan of Sir Patrick's writing, and his regular BBC program The Sky at Night is essential astronomy watching, and has been for the last 50 years!

Other guests on the film uncover the various attributes of Pluto's discovery, delving into the history and future of the planetary lightweight on the outermost reaches of the Solar System.

The Naming Pluto adventure culminates in 2006 when Venetia and Sir Patrick meet (for the second time) at his West Sussex home to make an attempt at observing Pluto through the telescope in his garden. Patrick was overjoyed to see Venetia again and chuckles as he introduces her to the camera crew, "The lady who named Pluto!"

"Yes, indeed," the ever gracious Venetia replies, smiling.

Unfortunately, the UK summer weather conspired against the possibility of clear skies, and any chance of Patrick's 15" reflector of spying Pluto was lost. However, there is a fantastic twist in the tale, bringing the whole film to a wonderfully emotional ending.

All in all, Naming Pluto is a fabulous tribute, not only to Venetia, but to the astronomical process. Although Pluto has undergone a change in status these last few years, it remains an important, permanent feature of the Solar System. This well-crafted story gives the viewer an excellent overview of Pluto's discovery, naming and the magic it holds today for the 9 year-olds at St. Anne's to Venetia who named the planet nearly 80 years ago…

Interview With Venetia Burney Phair

January 17th, 2006


Hi, this is Edward Goldstein with NASA Public Affairs. I'm talking to Venetia Phair, the lady who 76 years ago had the distinction of suggesting the name for Pluto, the newly discovered ninth planet. Venetia is currently a retired school teacher in Epsom, England.

At NASA we're very excited because next Tuesday, hopefully, we're going to launch the first robotic mission to Pluto. And given that you had the historic role of naming the planet, I wonder if you are quite excited about that?

Yes I certainly am.

Venetia, can you tell us a little bit about the circumstances that happened in 1930 that brought you to suggest the name of Pluto?

Yes, I don't quite know why I suggested it. I think it was on March the 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I after a short pause, said, "Why not call it Pluto?" I did know, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children's books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn’t been used. And there it was. The rest was entirely my grandfather's work.

And your grandfather (Falconer Madan) was a librarian I understand who had a lot of friends who were astronomers.

That's exactly right. He was retired He had been Bodleian's Librarian, which is the head librarian in the Bodleian at Oxford, which is the university library of course.

And he suggested the name to the astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who then in turn cabled the idea to the American astronomers at the Lowell Observatory. Is that correct?

That is correct, yes. Professor Turner had been Astronomer Royal in the past and was a professor at Oxford. On the day it was suggested—my grandfather dropped a note to him—he was, on that day, attending a meeting in London of the Royal Astronomical Society. They were all thinking about names, but for some reason, none of them thought of Pluto.

And you thought about it because of the Greek and Roman mythology about Pluto being the god of the underworld?

I don't think…I doubt if I was as subtle as that. I just thought it was a name that hadn't been used so far, and might be an obvious one to have.

And was it also because the first two letters PL have a connection with Percival Lowell?

No, I certainly didn't realize that or appreciate that at the time. But I quite see it would be a major factor in their deciding it would be a good name. And it is certainly appropriate.

What happened once the planet was named? I understand it was named in May of 1930. Were you thrilled when you heard that your suggestion was the one; that Pluto would be the name?

Yes, I certainly was thrilled. It was very exciting for a small girl really at the time.

How were you informed about it?

I think my grandfather told me. I'd heard nothing you see. I’d just really forgotten about it for the intervening months. But he was fairly active.

Was there any great fanfare when the name was announced?

Well not…to a limited extent. I think the newspapers were mostly occupied by the exploits of the woman pilot Amy Johnson at the time (Amy Johnson was the pioneering English aviatrix who in May 1930 became the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia). Anyway, there was a certain amount…you know a few papers I think. My grandfather collected any information there was through a press agency and put it into two scrapbooks that I have, which I treasure, and from which I can refresh my memory at times.

Well we hope you have that scrapbook out next week when we launch New Horizons.

Yes, I expect so. What I know is, I've just been by the way sent rather a nice little badge by Johns Hopkins University, which I think is probably the badge I would have been wearing if I’d been able to go to the launch. So I think I’ll wear it from now until after the launch.

Wonderful. Now I understand your great uncle Henry Madan named the moons of Mars Phobos and Deimos. So you come from a family of people who name heavenly bodies?

Yes, I think that is one of the nicest things about the whole story. I'm so very pleased because he had done that from a much more knowledgeable base that I came upon the name Pluto. It’s all been very nice for me really.

I would imagine so. Have you ever seen Pluto through a telescope?

I don't think I have. I’ve just seen a photograph of Pluto, I think the first photograph that Clyde Tombaugh was looking at, and the next picture showing that the same little pinpoint had moved a certain degree. I have been to Flagstaff, and they were very kind. And they showed us around and they showed us the telescope through which it was first seen.

Did you ever meet Clyde Tombaugh?

No, never, sadly.

Did you ever correspond with him?


I understand that some school kids here in America recently corresponded with you from the St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis. That must have been nice.

Yes, it was a great joy. I quite suddenly had 62 letters. I think they all sat down, all the eight and nine year olds, with instructions to write a letter to me. This must have been an English essay or something. But they were very charming letters. And I enjoyed each and every one of them.

Do people in your home town know you have this role in history?

Not to any great extent. Some of them may know because I believe that the BBC when it does it’s coverage of the launch, which I’m sure will be fairly thorough, may slip in a bit, a small interview with me. But on the whole, it doesn’t arise in conversation and you don’t just go around telling people that you named Pluto. But quite a lot of friends know and are interested.

You mean you've never had that temptation at a holiday gathering to tell your friends that?

Well not really, but sometimes it's nice, sometimes I'm glad to have them know.

What if anything would you like to tell all the scientists and engineers and all the people who worked on this New Horizons mission? What would you say to them?

I would say, I think, "The best of luck." And I can only hope that they discover all that they want to discover from this probe which must be one of the most exciting things that has happened astronomically recently.

When you look back at your life, isn't it exciting that there you were an 11 year old school girl who named this planet, and we’ve come so far technologically that now we can send a spacecraft all this distance in the solar system to this planet Pluto?

Yes, it is absolutely amazing, but it is paralleled by almost everything that has happened in the world, hasn't it. I mean we have stepped so far into the future as it were since the 1920's and 1930's. It leaves one absolutely stunned.

Do you like to look up at the stars?

Very much. Sadly it gets increasingly difficult to (do this). It's so well lit around here that only the brightest stars really get a look-in unless we have a power outage of course. But occasionally if one is in the country, and it is a good clear night, it is absolutely wonderful.

Now I understand you were a teacher. What did you teach?

I taught economics, which had been my subject in university and a little elementary math.

And at no time had you ever told your students that you had named Pluto?

I don't think so. No. It didn’t really come to mind much. There had been years and years when I never really thought about it. I think its only since Patrick Moore wrote an article in Sky and Telescope in 1984, and I should think that since then there has been an increasing amount of interest in it, especially in America, which has been delightful for me because as one gets older one's horizons narrow. And it's been very nice have to have say these letters from St. Mary's in Memphis, or this chat right now shall we say.

It's been very nice for you to talk with us too. And on behalf of NASA we really thank you for your enthusiasm and all you’ve done to help advance the exploration and discovery of the universe around us.

Well that's very nice of you. I have my kind invitation from NASA, and I treasure that too. I shall put it on the mantelpiece, I think, conspicuously, to look at. And I just wish everybody concerned with the launch that the whole thing will be the success that they hope.

Audio transcript

Venetia Phair


What's in a name?--Pluto

By the way, today is the three year anniversary of the launch of the New Horizons space probe headed for Pluto.

New Horizons


Laurel Kornfeld said...

The demotion of Pluto is highly controversial and has been rejected by a petition of 300 professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this; most who voted are not planetary scientists; the process they used violated the group's own bylaws, and the planet definition they created makes no linguistic or scientific sense.

Even now, there are scientists and lay people working actively to get this demotion overturned. I sincerely hope Venetia lives long enough to see the day when Pluto is rightfully reinstated as a full fledged planet in our solar system.

Mercury said...

Laurel Kornfeld:

I am not so sure this is as complicated as one might think. The general public will still consider, and rightly so, Pluto as one of the planets of our solar system. It is part of our collective culture and evolving mythology and heritage. The scientists, with their definitions, can function well with their astronomy and proceed to consider Pluto not a planet. As an analogy consider a common pain reliever and anti-inflammatory medication. We, the general public, call it "aspirin"; the chemists, physicians, and pharmacologists call it "acetylsalicylic acid" is both. The same can be said for Pluto.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

But the scientists themselves are still very much divided on Pluto's planet status. In addition to the fact that 96 percent of the IAU could not vote on this because they were not in a particular room on the last day of a two-week conference (no electronic voting was allowed), many planetary scientists are not IAU members. Planetary science is more and more becoming its own subfield as we get more data on the solar system from robotic missions. And it is the planetary scientists who most object to the demotion and believe that celestial bodies should be classified by what they are rather than by where they are.