Thursday, July 23, 2009

Naming Pluto

I think many of us who grew up with the knowledge that Pluto was the ninth planet are a bit sad at its demotion to dwarf planet. But the story behind its name is way cool–and it has nothing to do with the Disney dog. Well, not exactly.

On March 14, 1930, the frozen and lonely Planet-X orbiting in the far reaches of our solar system got its name from a British girl. 11-year-old Venetia Burney was having breakfast when her grandfather read aloud from the newspaper about the new planet. He wondered what it would be called. After a pause, Venetia replied, “Why not call it Pluto?” Pluto was a Roman God of the underworld and Venetia thought it fit very well with the other planetary names.

Venetia’s grandfather, Falconer Madan, was a librarian who was friends with many astronomers. He dropped a note to astronomer Herbert Hall Turner who then cabled the idea to astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Percival Lowell founded the observatory and formed the efforts that discovered Pluto 14 years after his death. Venetia was not familiar with Percival Lowell, but the astronomers who were thinking of names found Pluto to be fitting because of the coincidence of the first two letters being “PL”. The name was official in May of 1930.

It has been a persistent notion over the years that the planet was named after the Disney character. But in fact, it was the other way around. 

Venetia Burney Phair died in April of 2009 at the age of 90. She proves that girls rock–even at 11.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

No comments:

Post a Comment