Naming Pluto (DVD) Overview and Review
This delightful 13-minute film chronicling the naming of Pluto by Venetia Burney (now Venetia Burney Phair) in 1930 is a gentle telling of one of astronomy’s memorable human stories.
Venetia Burney was only eleven years old in March 1930 when she suggested to her grandfather, Falconer Medan – who ran Oxford University’s Bodleian Library – that Clyde Tombaugh‘s newly discovered world should be named Pluto.
Through her grandfather’s contacts the suggestion reached Herbert Hall Turner, former president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), who conveyed it via telegram to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, from where Tombaugh discovered Pluto. The rest, as they say, is history.
When New Horizon launched towards Pluto in January 2006, Venetia Burney had still not seen Pluto through a telescope.
An effort by Sir Patrick Moore to show her Pluto through his telescope was clouded out, but the film then takes us to the former site of the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux, where Venetia finally sees the distant, fourteenth magnitude pinprick of light that she so famously named.
With contributions from not only Patrick Moore but also Oxford University’s Allan Chapman and Robert Massey of the RAS, the film certainly isn’t without charisma and expertise, while a trip Venetia makes to a local school shows that children still have the innocent imagination that so inspired the name Venetia chose 79 years ago.
“Produced and directed by Ginita Jimenez, this heart-warming account will surely inspire all who watch it.” Astronomy Now
Sir Patrick Moore featured.
The film also features several scenes with the prolific British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. (a monocle exponentially adds to your coolness ratio as an astronomer!) Mrs. Phair attempts to spot Pluto from Moore’s private observatory, but the fickle English weather intervenes.
Much of the “is Pluto a Planet?” controversy is thankfully sidestepped, instead presenting the viewer with the wonder of discovery. “Its not demoted…Pluto will always be there!” quips Moore at one point. Mrs. Phair is finally successful at the Observatory Science center in Herstmonceux, England on the eve of her 89th birthday.
The demonstration of the blink comparator that Tombaugh used to discover Pluto is one of the best that I’ve seen in illustrating this innovative device. Moore was seven when Pluto was discovered, and his anecdote on eventually meeting Tombaugh was especially amusing. Tombaugh, also a resourceful amateur astronomer, had constructed a telescope using bicycle parts for a mount. He even had a coffee can for a cover! Tombaugh passed away on January 17th, 1997.
Mrs. Phair’s suggestion to name Pluto had been brought to the attention of the Lowell observatory via her father’s connections at the Oxford Library. The name was especially appealing because of use of the initials “PL” as in Percival Lowell, the founder of the observatory. The symbol for Pluto also reflects this: Comment – Astro Guyz
The Symbol for Pluto.
This film is wonderful in that it also shows the impact the discovery and naming has had on school kids. It follows Mrs. Phair as she visits a classroom and listens to kids’ ideas. You can see the awe as children realize that their ideas do indeed count and that children can contribute to the world of science, as well.
Sadly, Venetia Burney Phair recently passed away on April 30th, 2009 at the age of 90.
It’s sobering to think that she and Tombaugh will not be with us to witness the New Horizons flyby of their planet on July 14th, 2015, but this short film serves as a testament to her contribution to this piece of astronomical history.
An asteroid, 6235 Burney was named in her honor, as well as the Student Dust Counter aboard the New Horizons space craft.
This film would serve as an excellent showing at your next astronomy club meeting, a good educational tool, or just a wonderful addition to a private collection. The DVD can be purchased from Father Films at their online shop.
Don’t forget, the 80th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto is coming up next year… no doubt, Pluto will become topical again.
Now, to wait until 2015 and see how well those simulations of Pluto and Charon match up to the New Horizons images as it whizzes past…
- Pluto: Not a Planet; Still Very Interesting (news.discovery.com)
- Was Pluto Ever A Planet? (davidreneke.com)