Friday, May 22, 2009

Famous Astronomoms: Venetia Phair

The second entry into my Famous Astronomoms series feels a bit like a cheat, since she's not very famous, and also arguably not really an astronomer. But I check - she was definitely a mom, and I think her story is interesting so I wanted to include it.

You will be forgiven for not knowing who Venetia Phair is, especially as her only contribution to astronomy was made almost 80 years ago under her maiden name of Venetia Burney. Venetia Burney, in March 1930, was an 11 year old Oxford school girl who was the first person to suggest the name "Pluto" for the recently discovered planet. She benefited from making this suggestion to her grandfather, who happened to know an Oxford Professor of Astronomy (Herbert Hall Turner). I'm not surprised that Venetia's grandfather thought her idea brilliant enough to put it in a quick note to Turner which he dropped at his house on the way to the library (my little one's grandfather has already suggested she's a genius), but it is perhaps surprising that Turner also thought the idea good enough to merit telegramming it to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and that the staff there (including Clyde Tombaugh - the discoverer of the planet) liked it enough to adopt it.

This picture shows Venetia Burney age 11 around the time she named Pluto.

Venetia got widespread fame at the time for her suggestion, and a prize of £5 from her grandfather (a lot of money in 1930). Even before the recent fuss about the demotion of Pluto from a major planet there was some renewed interest in Mrs. Phair's story, with some BBC press. She also has an asteroid named after her (6235 Burney) and an instrument on board the New Horizons spacecraft (currently enroute to Pluto).

In 2006 the IAU voted to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet (rather than risk having to make perhaps dozens of outer solar system objects planets). Venetia Phair was quoted on this of saying "At my age, I've been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet", and also commented on the slight irony that interest in Pluto seems to have gotten larger after it was demoted.

Venetia Phair did not become a professional astronomer, but she did go on to work in a STEM field - studying Mathematics at Cambridge University. For a while she worked as a chartered accountant, and then as a teacher of economics and mathematics at a girls school (first in London, later in Sussex). It appears that she continued to work after her marriage in 1947, switching to teaching only in 1950. This would have been relatively unusual in the UK at the time. She only retired as a teacher in the 1980s, which is consistent with her working until past the UK state retirement age of 60 (for women). It is not commented at which point during this her son was born, but clearly she was a working mother for at least part of the time.

Venetia Phair passed away on April 30th this year, age 90. There is a more extensive obituary of her in the Daily Telegraph Science Obituaries. She is survived by her son.


Mrs. CH said...

Very cool - I've actually never heard that story before!

Laurel Kornfeld said...

What is wrong with having dozens of outer solar system planets? It should be noted that the IAU’s controversial demotion of Pluto is very likely not the last word on the subject and in fact represents only one interpretation in an ongoing debate. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, 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 in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet.

Astronomum said...

Thanks for the comment. Personally I don't really care if Pluto is called a planet, a dwarf planet, or even a rubber ducky, but I do think this whole controversy has been great for science in general and makes a fantastic teaching example for the scientific method.

By the way, at least a couple of the largest asteroids are spherical. You can see this for yourself with Ceres (here: This part of the definition depends on the tensile strength of the material the body is made of which could make it a bit funny (a planet made out ice chunks could have a lower mass than one made out of granite for example).

I happen to have a friend who is a dynamical astronomer, and he assures me that the addition of the requirement that a planet also dominate its orbit (the one thing that excludes Pluto in the new definition) does make a lot of sense. Then the objects is the largest thing around (in its sphere of influence) so gets the "honour" of being a planet.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Some objects now called asteroids, such as Ceres and possibly Vesta and Pallas, should be considered planets since they are likely in hydrostatic equilibrium (we know for sure that Ceres is). I have no problem with the term dwarf planet, which was actually coined by Dr. Alan Stern. My problem, and a concern shared by many, is the statement that dwarf planets are not planets at all. Why not address both dynamical and compositional characteristics by classifying all objects in hydrostatic equilibrium as planets but with the caveat that those that do not dominate their orbits fall into the dwarf planet subcategory. This is consistent with the use of the term dwarf in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies.

Montana State University created a terrific lesson plan on planet definition that asks children to address these very issues and come up with answers for themselves. This plan was selected by NASA as an "exemplary product" and can be found here:

Laurel Kornfeld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Astronomum said...

Laurel, That looks like a great resource from NASA. Thanks for providing the link.