"And then I said, 'why not call it Pluto?' And the whole thing stemmed from that."
May 11, 2009 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Venetia Phair, who named Pluto as a child, dies at 90.

The subject of a short film, "Naming Pluto," observed, " "It's interesting isn't it, that as they come to demote Pluto, so the interest in it seems to have grown," she says. Previously.
posted by Morrigan (54 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ninth planet, ninety years old, died in '09 on her ninth life.
posted by ageispolis at 4:05 PM on May 11, 2009


And here I was all ready with a joke about Disney's lobbying for copyright extensions.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:07 PM on May 11, 2009


. '
posted by Dumsnill at 4:10 PM on May 11, 2009


.

I wonder if her husband is somehow distantly related to Liz Phair?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:20 PM on May 11, 2009


Ah, seems Liz Phair was adopted. Never mind then.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:21 PM on May 11, 2009


Are we back to calling it a real planet now?

Please say it is so.


Also: .
posted by Malice at 4:31 PM on May 11, 2009


.

I recall when Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, cashed in about twelve years ago. It seemed strange and wonderful that someone who had discovered a planet* was still walking the earth in my lifetime and had lived long enough to hear about the discovery of a planet outside this solar system. Now I find it equally strange and wonderful that 98% of all planets so far discovered orbit other stars than our own.



* That's right, I said it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:41 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


O . . . . . . . . .
posted by brundlefly at 4:48 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


.
posted by starman at 4:54 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ah, seems Liz Phair was adopted. Never mind then.

Not to derail but as an adopted person myself I am indeed a relative of my adopted family members, thank you very much.

.

posted by jimmythefish at 4:58 PM on May 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


Never Forget
posted by jfrancis at 5:15 PM on May 11, 2009


Was she blind?
posted by Senator at 5:19 PM on May 11, 2009


Was she blind?

The photo of her on the BBC website shows her wearing bifocals, so it seems unlikely that she'd self-identify as "blind".

Or is this some joke I'm not getting?
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:23 PM on May 11, 2009


"It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way round. So, one is vindicated."

I swear that from now on, every time I'm right about something, that's what I'm going to say: "So, one is vindicated."
posted by padraigin at 5:29 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


I AM THE VINDICATOR! KNOW ME AND BE JUDGED!
posted by The Whelk at 5:31 PM on May 11, 2009


Once a planet, always a planet.

.
posted by inconsequentialist at 5:35 PM on May 11, 2009


....oo.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:54 PM on May 11, 2009 [10 favorites]


Once a planet, always a planet.

. (Pluto — Venetia Phair)
. (Ceres — Giuseppe Piazzi)
. (Vesta — Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers)
. (Juno — Karl L. Harding)
. (Iris — J. R. Hind)
posted by adipocere at 5:55 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Are we back to calling it a real planet now?

They're gonna want his milk money next... (audio may be nsfw)
posted by Ufez Jones at 6:17 PM on May 11, 2009


Isn't this old news? Didn't she die like, back at the end of April or something?

Sad news, regardless. At least she'll forever live on in our hearts and minds as 6325 Burney, a minor planet. Kind of fitting, really.

.
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:37 PM on May 11, 2009


.
posted by naoko at 7:00 PM on May 11, 2009


Or is this some joke I'm not getting?
It was a lame play on her first name.
posted by tellurian at 7:10 PM on May 11, 2009


Venetia Phair might be the most beautiful name I've ever encountered.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:13 PM on May 11, 2009


I still prefer to call the former ninth planet "Cheryl."

And who decided its sign would be ♇ ?

In any case, interesting story!
posted by not_on_display at 7:36 PM on May 11, 2009


I think the sign is a pun involving the initials of Percival Lowell.
posted by lukemeister at 7:41 PM on May 11, 2009


(0)
 +
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:52 PM on May 11, 2009


And check out the name on that grandfather: "Falconer Madan".
posted by fleacircus at 8:04 PM on May 11, 2009


Pluto, you know I love ya, but you're not a planet. You're a dwarf planet. (You're not even the biggest dwarf planet. Sorry.)
posted by Guy Smiley at 8:08 PM on May 11, 2009


.
posted by humannaire at 8:30 PM on May 11, 2009


It's a fucking planet!

"Planet" is an entirely artificial construct. It's an arbitrary classification and there's no reason it couldn't be "Object with properties X, Y and Z plus Pluto."

There's no fundamental law of the universe that divides objects into planets and non planets. No one is arguing that neutrons should be considered positively charged or something.
posted by delmoi at 9:10 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like the John Hodgman way of defining if something is a planet or not. Which is...

Would Galactus eat it?
posted by Effigy2000 at 9:47 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


delmoi, of course planet is an artificial construct. But it had never been truly defined since the time of the ancient greeks.

Back then, it meant wanderer and referred to the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn (in order of the days of the week for which they are named). It simply meant that their position against the sphere of so-called fixed stars would change.

When Copernicus dethroned the Sun from its primacy at the center of the universe, and the Moon was discovered to be a satellite, the definition shifted. Basically, anything that primarily orbited the Sun was declared a planet.

This worked right through the discovery of Ceres, which turned out to located at a harmonically significant point between Mars and Jupiter. But by the time they discovered a thousand other objects in that region, it was decided that it wasn't sufficient to be in an elliptical orbit around the sun. They called the mess asteroids but never really redefined planet.

So now it has been determined that there is no Planet X. The orbital perturbations that led to the search beyond Neptune turn out to have been measurement errors. Pluto has miniscule mass and is smaller in mass and diameter than several other moons in the solar system, including our own moon. The barycentric point around which it orbits with Charon is actually above Pluto's surface, so Pluto and Charon, if defined as planets, could probably only be properly considered a dual planet system. And Pluto has not cleared its orbit.

The thing is, the mass of Pluto changed over the years because its orbit is so very distant that it has traversed only a bit more than a third of its orbit since discovery. Because it was assumed that it was the mysterious Planet X, its mass was originally estimated to be much higher. It's like the ratio e/g. Only as time went by did researchers acquire the courage to dispute previous results in the literature.

The true mass doesn't seem so impressive when it turns out to be about 10 times as massive as Ceres (which is pretty tiny!) but only 18% the mass of our own Moon. To land, you might have to attach grappling hooks to keep from floating away (0.06g at the surface).

The point is, planet can be defined any way you like. But it isn't really useful if it includes everything orbiting the sun.

Check out The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I've essentially summarized above. He doesn't particularly care about the term "planet", but thinks it would be much more useful if, instead of thinking of Pluto as a ninth planet, and fairly insignificant and small when compared to its nearest neighbor planets, it makes more sense to group the orbiting bodies according to their characteristics.

So the Hayden planetarium, in accordance with the emerging astrophysical models of the time, grouped them into the terrestrials (hard, small rocky, relatively thin atmospheres): Mercury through Mars. The Asteroids (by themselves). The Gas Giants (Jupiter through Neptune). And the Kuiper belt objects, of which Pluto was the first! And the first of the Trans-Neptunian Resonant Objects, for that matter.

These are terms that tell you something about the object. Continuing a devotion to the nine-planet mnemonic is as illogical as maintaining a belief in the deities whose names inspired them. The hallmark of science is that it keeps an open mind in the face of new evidence, and is willing to abandon old models if they are no longer able to explain the facts.

It is interesting to talk to kids who went through third grade before and after the new IAU definition of planet was declared in 2006. Older people became very upset. My son, on the other hand, treats the new order as the way it has always been. He realizes that Pluto was once considered a planet, but the difference isn't that important to him.
posted by Araucaria at 10:02 PM on May 11, 2009 [9 favorites]


Should have previewed a bit more ... of course Copernicus dethroned the Earth! And my son is in third grade, which means he's been learning about the solar system this year.

I'm just saying, delmoi, why not call the Sun and the Moon planets? That's what they were originally. If you grant that the definition can change for the Sun, Moon and Ceres based on changing evidence, you have to grant that Pluto is basically a Kuiper Belt object. Then decide whether you want to include the others.
posted by Araucaria at 10:08 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dammit, it's e/m, not e/g. I'm too tired to be commenting today.
posted by Araucaria at 10:09 PM on May 11, 2009


It seems to be that, rather than using a very simple 2-step model for determining if something is a planet or not (1 - has sufficient mass to overcome hydrostatic equilibrium, namely, is spherical, and 2 - orbiting the sun) everyone seems to want to have these exotic criteria like gravitationally clearing out its orbit (except for Jupiter or Neptune), and the reasoning I've seen from everyone (including Neil Degrasse Tyson, who I have enormous respect for but feel is totally wrong on this issue) ultimately comes down to if we were to simplify it that much there'd be -- GASP -- too many planets!

Oh, the travesty of upgrading Vesta and Ceres to planet status, and even Eris, because gosh darn it, 12 planets is just too many to remember. What if there are dozens out there in the Kuiper belt? Nice big planets (maybe bigger than Mercury, even!) and all so many that we'd run out of names and fifth graders wouldn't be able to remember them all!

1) Spherical due to its mass
2) Orbits the sun (or in the case of Pluto and Charon, and eventually Earth and the Moon, the barycenter orbits the sun)

Is that so hard?
posted by chimaera at 10:25 PM on May 11, 2009


I can see the argument for upgrading spherical asteroids to planets, but I'm not sure it's worth the confusion. It isn't about how many there would be, really. It would be about making the designation planet virtually pointless.

Heck, Jupiter is practically a star. There is actually a continuum of bodies in the universe and any useful designation will be fuzzy around the edges.

Personally, I liked it when I could have the rejoinder that Pluto was now the biggest TNO, but of course that's water-ice around the apogee. I also wish people would get that TNOs are intrinsically interesting, but I guess to some size matters, or something. If then, though, why defend Pluto?
posted by dhartung at 10:32 PM on May 11, 2009


Before Copernicus, the definition of "planet" was "Things that are on the list: MERCURY, VENUS, MARS, JUPITER, SATURN."

Between Copernicus and Herschel, the definition of "planet" was "Things that are on the list: MERCURY, VENUS, EARTH, MARS, JUPITER, SATURN."

Between Herschel and Leverrier, the definition of "planet" was "Things that are on the list: MERCURY, VENUS, EARTH, MARS, JUPITER, SATURN, URANUS."

Between Leverrier and Tombaugh, the definition of "planet" was "Things that are on the list: MERCURY, VENUS, EARTH, MARS, JUPITER, SATURN, URANUS, NEPTUNE."

Between Tombaugh and 2006, the definition of "planet" was "Things that are on the list: MERCURY, VENUS, EARTH, MARS, JUPITER, SATURN, URANUS, NEPTUNE, PLUTO."

After 2006, the International Astronomical Union realized that we needed a proper definition of planet, one that is not just an arbitrary list. They chose this one:
The definition of "planet" set in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) states that in the Solar System a planet is a celestial body that:
  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and
  3. has "cleared the neighbourhood" around its orbit.
Sadly, for some, Pluto does not meet all three of these requirements. (Luckly for Pluto, as a nonsentient dwarf planet composed of ice, rock, and iron, it is unable to have any opinion about what we think of it.)
posted by Guy Smiley at 10:33 PM on May 11, 2009


(or, on preview, a lot of what Araucaria said.)
posted by Guy Smiley at 10:39 PM on May 11, 2009


3. has "cleared the neighbourhood" around its orbit.

You see, it's this part that is not really a physical definition. If Pluto hasn't cleared the neighborhood of its orbit because its orbit intersects with Neptune, why is Neptune exempt from that requirement? And why is Jupiter exempt from the requirement, since it has asteroid groups at its Jupiter-Sun L4 and L5 points? Or are Lagrangian bodies not "in the neighborhood?"

Really, what is wrong with the first two? I think having adequate mass to be spherical is a very straightforward definition -- and a very distinctive one because if you ain't got the mass you're a long way from spherical -- why does that muddy the definition? It still sounds like the "oh there's too many" argument.

How does leaving out #3 make the definition virtually pointless?
posted by chimaera at 10:50 PM on May 11, 2009


Not to derail but as an adopted person myself I am indeed a relative of my adopted family members, thank you very much.

I meant "blood relation" of course. Any person brought into a family becomes a "relative".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:49 PM on May 11, 2009


My son is also in 3rd grade so we've been doing the Solar System in our homeschool lessons. His science book only had a little blurb about Pluto's demotion so we did some more research online. As an extreme lay person, I found the rationale for demoting it sensible, but I was struck most by the fact that "clearing the neighborhood" is the actual terminology used. It made me think of my teenager, who is clearly not yet an adult because he has not cleared the neighborhood on his bike.
posted by Biblio at 4:58 AM on May 12, 2009


I meant "blood relation" of course. Any person brought into a family becomes a "relative".

Personally, I think finding out that Liz Phair was adopted by descendants of Venetia Phair, The Woman Who Named Pluto, would explain a whole lot.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:19 AM on May 12, 2009


The definition of "planet" set in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) states that in the Solar System a planet is a celestial body that:

1. is in orbit around the Sun,
2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and
3. has "cleared the neighbourhood" around its orbit.


Karl Pilkington's head fits these criteria.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:21 AM on May 12, 2009


Man you people are touchy about Pluto. Was it your favorite planet or something?
posted by graventy at 5:48 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this. I like the photograph of her aged 11.
posted by paduasoy at 7:05 AM on May 12, 2009


Isn't the whole irrational emotionality around scientific classification a Republican talking point? Are you guys going to start referring to stem cells as babies? Are you going to refer to the brain dead as being asleep? Do you call ketchup a vegetable?
posted by troybob at 8:10 AM on May 12, 2009


I still don't get the loyalty to Pluto as a planet. And I've not heard a decent explanation other than "But I'm used to it!"
posted by grubi at 8:31 AM on May 12, 2009


Oh, come on, troybob.

Ketchup is clearly a fruit.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:38 AM on May 12, 2009


You might enjoy this short poem I wrote just after Pluto got de-listed as a proper planet:

Alas, Pluto!
-------------
by John Price - August 25, 2006

Alas, Pluto!
Seventy-six years together
But your eccentric ways wore us down
And we just can't take you any more.

Return to the frozen far reaches!
Return to the underworld!
That's what you get for being lumpy,
You one-fifth of the moon-sized vagrant.

Brooding there in your distant depths
Your fate must weigh heavily.
Yet do not despair of sympathy -
It weighs 17 times more heavily on us.

There shall be but eight planets,
And eight planets shall there be!
You were the gateway dwarf to the legions
Of rocky, wobbly finger-quote planets.

If nine, then ten, twelve, more!
Two-thousand-three-UB-three-thirteen
Are you kidding me?
A planet called "Xena" just wouldn't do.

But ay! What of our solar system mobiles?
What of our children's science texts?
And poor Mr. Tombaugh, his ashes speeding to you,
Only discovered a rock in the end.

Alas, Pluto! Mickey's dog still carries your name,
But we wash our hands of you;
you crossed Neptune once too often.
Alas, Pluto!
posted by freecellwizard at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


.

I've always thought the name "Pluto" to be such an awesome fit for the planet/dwarf/whatever they're calling it now.
posted by Xere at 10:16 AM on May 12, 2009


grubi: I still don't get the loyalty to Pluto as a planet. And I've not heard a decent explanation other than "But I'm used to it!"

Most of the time, when we bother to send a robot flying around objects large enough to become round objects and support a tenuous atmosphere (even if it's part-time), we've been surprised to discover previously-unknown phenomena. The AU definition is a fairly ugly hack, for many of the reasons already stated. I suspect that there is also a bit of politics involved as Kuiper-belt research projects and missions compete with sexier missions to Mars and the gas giants.

My gut feeling is that "planet" like "microbe" or "germ" is overdue for demotion to a strictly layman's term. Now that we have the chemical tools to put them into the much more descriptive categories of archaebacteria, eubacteria, eukaryotes, and viruses, the need for a general term to describe anything invisible to the naked eye and barely visible in an optical microscope is much reduced. Likewise, let's get over it, and develop four or more categories to describe objects by size and relationship to the frost line.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:13 PM on May 12, 2009


Personally, I think finding out that Liz Phair was adopted by descendants of Venetia Phair, The Woman Who Named Pluto, would explain a whole lot.

Yes it would. That independent, never-say-die spirit especially. Even musically, you've got the song Supernova. Still would love to know what inspired Flower, though.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:43 PM on May 12, 2009


What ever happened to a planet?
The kind of rock that had a round appearance
What ever happened to a planet?
The kind that clears out its 'hood cos it's in it, and
I want a planet
I want a planet
I don't want this stupid dwarf shit
Like Eris and Ceres
Eris and Ceres
posted by Sys Rq at 1:20 PM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Have my baby, Sys Rq.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:29 PM on May 12, 2009


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