Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pluto named by an 11-year-old schoolgirl after the god of the underworld

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by a  24-year-old “amateur” astronomer from Illinois, Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997) [1-4]. He found Pluto photographically as a faint, slowly moving spot while working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff (Arizona) searching for a mysterious Planet X, whose existence had been proposed to account for perturbations in the motions of Neptune.

The newly discovered Planet X was then taken for the ninth planet and needed a name that followed the Roman nomenclature, which “identifies” planets as Roman gods and godesses—planet Earth is an exception. Neil deGrasse Tyson describes how Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old schoolgirl and granddaughter of Falconer Madan (a retired librarian of Oxford University), suggested the name Pluto over breakfast, after her grandfather had read to her the news story about the discovered planet [4]. From mythology she knew that Pluto was the god of the dead and underworld. What better name for an object orbiting in near darkness far away from the sun? Oxford professor and astronomer royal Herbert Hall Turner, a friend of Madan and known in physics for coining the term parsec as a unit of astronomical distance, forwarded Venetia's suggestion to fellow astronomers at the Lowell Observatory: although there were other suggestions, Pluto made it. Use the old boy network, young girl!  

In 2006 the Internatioal  Astronomical Union (IAU) voted for Pluto's demotion to the status of dwarf planet [4]. Considering that Pluto indeed is a dwarf planet makes its discovery in the pre-space-telescope and pre-spacecraft era even greater. And what does size and status of an object matter when an 11-year old girl came up with a powerful name for it.

Keywords: physics, astronomy, planetary science, solar system, discovery, history, nomenclature

References and more to explore
[1] Academy of Achievement > Clyde Tombaugh Biography:
[2] Clyde Tombaugh, 1906-1997:
[3] Kansapedia > Clyde Tombaugh:
[4] Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Pluto Files. W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2009; pages 7 to 9 and others.

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