Wednesday, May 13, 2009

naming pluto


Venetia Burney, aged eleven,
named an object in the heaven,
transuranic and remote,
to observers’ eyes a mote,
suggesting that it should be known
as Pluto, name that it would own,
and share with Disney’s dog of Mickey.
Some astronomers were picky,
but finally they all agreed
the name she chose was great indeed
and didn’t choose to later ban it
once it had ceased to be a planet,
like teams in Premier League demoted,
remaining to this name devoted,
thus to Venetia being fair,
as her last name became, for Phair
she turned into when she got married
and Burney became hara-kari’d,
a plutoid name, you might say if
on Pluto’s you would make a riff.

Her father was a bible scholar,
and when it’s time for an extoller
of me you’ll find out in my obit
that I, too, study Holy Writ,
an inconspicuous asteroid
revolving in the Western void.
Quite unlike Ms. Venetia Phair,
there are no traces of me there
like those that you will find in heaven
made by Venetia when eleven,
though plus eleven three score years,
and taxwise sadly in arrears.

The first poem written while working in my new job near Glendale, and inspired by an obituary of Venetia Phair written by William Grimes in the NYT, May 11, 2007:

Frozen and lonely, Planet X circled the far reaches of the solar system awaiting discovery and a name. It got one thanks to an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, an enthusiast of the planets and classical myth. On March 14, 1930, the day newspapers reported that the long-suspected “trans-Neptunian body” had been photographed for the first time, she proposed to her well-connected grandfather that it be named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld. And so it was. Venetia Phair, as she became by marriage, died April 30 in her home in Banstead, in the county of Surrey, England. She was 90. The death was confirmed by her son, Patrick. Venetia, on the fateful day that Pluto popped into her head, was having breakfast with her mother and her grandfather, Falconer Madan, retired librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. He had exciting news to tell. Scientists at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., had just photographed a planet lying beyond Neptune. Its existence had been postulated since the late 19th century, and astronomers working under Percival Lowell, the observatory’s founder, had been chasing it photographically since 1906. Now theory had become fact. “He wondered what it should be called,” Mrs. Phair recalled in the documentary film, “Naming Pluto,” released last month. “We all wondered, and then I said, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ And the whole thing stemmed from that.” Mr. Madan passed the idea along to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford. Pluto, he suggested in a letter, was an excellent name for “the big obscure new baby.” Mr. Turner, as it happened, was in London for a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, where word of the new planet had members buzzing, and proposals for a name flew fast and furious. “I think PLUTO excellent!!” he wrote to Mr. Madan on his return. “We did not manage to think of anything so good at the RAS yesterday. The only at all meritorious suggestion was Kronos, but that won’t do alongside Saturn.” (Kronos is the Greek equivalent of Saturn.) Mr. Turner immediately sent a telegram to Flagstaff: “Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.”…
Venetia Katherine Burney was born in Oxford, where her father, the Rev. Charles Fox Burney, was a professor of scriptural interpretation. He died when Venetia was 6, and she and her mother went to live with Mr. Madan. Venetia developed an interest in astronomy after playing a game with other children in which lumps of clay, standing for the planets, were placed on a lawn in their positions relative to the sun.She attended Downe House, a boarding school in Berkshire, and, after studying mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, became a chartered accountant. She later taught economics and math at two girls’ schools in southwest London. In 1947 she married Maxwell Phair, a classicist, who became housemaster and head of English at Epsom College. She is survived by her son, of Cheltenham. Mrs. Phair tended to play down her stroke of genius. She came up with Pluto, she said, simply because it was one of the few important Roman gods still available for planetary duty. “Whether I thought about a dark, gloomy Hades, I’m not sure,” she told the BBC in 2006…
Mrs. Phair took it in stride when the International Astronomical Union decreed that Pluto was not a planet at all. It was a dwarf planet, and not even the largest one, a lump of rock and ice orbiting in a ring of icy debris known as the Kuiper Belt. Some face was saved last year when the union announced the coining of the term “plutoid” to designate a dwarf planet beyond the orbit of Neptune. More vexing to Mrs. Phair was the persistent notion that she had taken the name from the Disney character. “It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way around,” she told the BBC. “So, one is vindicated.” Alan M. MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky and Telescope, foresees sweeter vindication ahead. “In the year 4,000 A.D., when Pluto is hollowed out and millions of people are living inside,” he said, “the name of Venetia Burney may be the only thing that Great Britain is remembered for.”
Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer who teaches at Williams College, responded to the poem thus:
We thank you for your rhyming piece. Your skills in language never cease. It's hard to bring astronomy To worldwide people As you see. Venetia Burney chose a name Though probably they had the same Idea in Flagstaff and were ready, Solidifying their idea so heady. This summer's August I will go To Rio, where it doesn't snow. And we will see if IAU Considers their own old boo-boo. But probably the name will stick And kids won't know or care a lick. And I've moved on to Haumea (A plutoid, yet a dwarf, so say ya). Jay

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/11/09

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