Today marks the 86th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto.
One thing I’ve always found interesting about the former planet is that its discovery/naming involve a string of people who all happen to have memorable names: Percival, Vesto, Clyde, Herbert, Falconer, and Venetia.
Businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell began looking for the trans-Neptunian planet he’d postulated — “Planet X” — in the early 1900s at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona Territory. Even after he died in 1916, Observatory staff kept up the search.
Young astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, using photos taken by the Observatory’s astrograph, finally made the discovery on February 18, 1930. The existence of a ninth planet was announced to the public on March 13, which would have been Percival Lowell’s 75th birthday. It was also the anniversary of the discovery of Uranus (in 1781).
Now it was up to the director of Lowell Observatory, astronomer Vesto M. Slipher, to name the new planet.
Soon suggestions indeed poured in from all quarters: Cronus, Odin, Persephone, Erebos, Atlas, Prometheus…the list seemed endless. One young couple even wrote to Tombaugh asking that the planet be named after their newborn child!
The suggestion Slipher liked best was “Pluto.” Not only was Pluto one of the few good names from classical mythology not already in use (Pluto was the ruler of the underworld) but its first two letters coincided with Percival Lowell’s initials.
Ostensibly the suggestion had come to Slipher via telegram from Oxford astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who was passing it along for retired Bodleian Librarian Falconer Madan, who had gotten it from his 11-year-old granddaughter Venetia Burney, who’d come up with it over breakfast the day after the discovery was announced.
Nowadays it’s hard to believe that Venetia was the very first person to propose the name Pluto. Astronomers at the Brera Observatory in Milan, for instance, had nicknamed the planet Pluto soon after it was discovered. (And Slipher was no doubt aware of this.)
Nevertheless, when Slipher used the name in print for the first time on May 1, he gave Venetia Burney full credit. On May 25, the planet was officially named Pluto.
Today’s question: Which of the male names above do you like best? Vote below, then tell me why in the comments.
Sources: Finding Pluto: Tough Task, Even 75 Years Later, The girl who named a planet, Another Plutonian Casualty?, The Discovery of Pluto
Image: Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color (credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)