The Woman Who Named Pluto

The English woman who in 1930 suggested the newly discovered planet  be named Pluto died on April 30.  [Regardless of what it is considered now, I still think of Pluto as a planet. ]   The eleven year old Venetia Phair suggested the name to her grandfather at the breakfast table.


Venetia Phair

“My grandfather, as usual, opened the paper, The Times, and in it he read that a new planet had been discovered,” she recalled in a short film, “Naming Pluto,” released earlier this year. “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.”

Her grandfather told a friend who told the discoverer, Clyde W. Tombaugh.

When the name was publicly announced on May 1, 1930, Mrs. Phair said her grandfather rewarded her with a five-pound note. (The same purchasing power today would be about 230 pounds, or $350.)

According to the London Telegraph, Ms. Phair is the only woman to have named a planet.  The photograph of Ms. Phair at 11 is from the Telegraph obituary. 

She was fascinated with astronomy, and recalled playing a game at school using clay lumps to mark out the relative positions of the planets.

She was also a keen student of mythology, and knew about Pluto, the Roman name for the Greek god of the underworld, Hades.

“There were practically no names left from classical mythology,” she told the BBC. “Whether I thought about the dark and gloomy Hades, I’m not sure.”

She tartly rejected any suggestion that the planet was named for the Disney dog, instead of the other way around.

She studied mathematics at Cambridge University and taught economics and math until retiring in the 1980s.

Coming full circle in a way, my husband read me her obituary from the Boston Globe this morning at breakfast – the print edition, of course.

2 thoughts on “The Woman Who Named Pluto

  1. You are absolutely correct in continuing to refer to Pluto as a planet. Only four percent of the International Astronomical Union voted on the controversial demotion, 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 orbiting a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape–a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids. Even now, scientists and lay people are working to overturn the demotion or are ignoring it altogether. It is unlikely to stand in the long term.

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