Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My Phair lady

If there’s anything more far out than the whole Pluto-is-a-planet-is-not-is-too controversy, it’s the sweet story of the christening of the ninth object from the sun. The star of the show is a dark Horsehead of a woman called Venetia Burney Phair, who sounds like someone on Harry Potter’s Quidditch team but is in fact an unassuming Englishwoman who, at the tender age of eleven, knew her Roman and Greek mythology and her solar system enough to upstage the Royal Astronomical Society.

Venetia and her grandfather Falconer Madan, who sounds like one of Harry Potter’s Potions teachers but was really the retired Bodleian librarian, were sitting at breakfast one drizzly morning when he read her the news item in the Times about Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Planet X at Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona.

Venetia was reading Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, and she had been on a nature walk at school that laid out the planets to scale. The class walked away from a sun two feet in diameter drawn on the blackboard; 41 paces later they put down canary seed-sized Mercury; 77 paces later, pea-sized Venus, and so on and so forth, to a golf ball representing Saturn, 1,019 paces away. At this point everyone got tired and gave up and trudged back to school, but Venetia had worked out that it was dark and cold past Saturn.

So when her grandfather mentioned that they hadn’t yet named the new planet, she thought about it for a few seconds and said, What about Pluto? Madan fell about in admiration and shot off the suggestion to his friend Herbert H. Turner, who sounds like one of Harry Potter’s really peripheral friends but was in fact a former Astronomer Royal.

Turner, in turn, sent a telegram in mid-March to Vesto Melvin Slipher, who sounds like one of Harry Potter’s enemies at the Ministry of Magic but was actually the director of the Lowell Observatory. On May 1 Slipher announced the official adoption of the name Pluto, causing Falconer Madan to lavish a full five quid on his granddaughter. (There is some scepticism about whether Venetia was really the first person to come up with the name Pluto, but most people agree that even if she wasn’t, hers is the most charming story, so there.)

Venetia grew up to become an economics teacher, and married one Maxwell Phair. She lives in Epsom, England, and gives occasional quavery interviews to NASA among others. The lovely thing about her is her stodgy refusal to glamourise her part in history. In later years, when asked how she chose Pluto, she said she chose it because it wasn’t taken yet. When asked if she chose it because the first two letters honour Percival Lowell, who predicted a ninth planet, she said no, she didn’t realise or appreciate that at the time. When asked how thrilled she is to be the only person alive to have named a planet she said, “you don’t just go around telling people that you named Pluto…but it’s vereh nice for me.”

It’s nice, therefore, to know that she has an asteroid named after her (the 6235 Burney) and that the New Horizons probe currently on its way to Pluto is carrying a scientific experiment called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, which one hopes is more useful than it sounds and has nothing to do with mouldering undergraduates.

Venetia would buy one of those “Honk if Pluto is still a planet” bumper stickers if she were the sort of person who bought bumper stickers. But while non-planets don’t get named after Roman gods, the International Astronomical Union—facing rock-bottom popularity these days—has decided to keep the name Pluto, and that seems only Phair.

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