The Girl Who Named a Planet

When she was an 11-year-old schoolgirl, Venetia Phair named a planet. Today, in her retirement flat in Surrey, England, Phair learned she would have to settle for having named a "plutoid." Pluto, once the ninth planet in our solar system, had already been demoted to the status of a "dwarf planet" in 2006. Now, international astronomers have created this new designation of space objects—"plutoids"—for smaller bodies like Pluto. Back in 1930, Phair was breakfasting with her grandfather, a retired Oxford librarian, when he read in The Times of London about the discovery of a new planet. The young girl, who was well versed in Greek and Roman mythology, suggested that Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, would make a good planetary name. Her grandfather passed on the suggested to his friend, the noted astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who thought enough of the notion to telegraph the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, where Pluto was discovered. Phair spoke with NEWSWEEK's Caitlin McDevitt about Pluto's changing status. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did you react when you learned that the planet would be named Pluto?
Venetia Phair:
I was very pleased. My grandfather gave me a five-pound note, which was unheard of as far as I was concerned at the time.

Did you have a particular interest in astronomy?
Well, especially at an early age, one does become pretty intrigued by the enormous distance in the night sky. That is, what there was to see before all of these awful street lights.

What do you think about technological progress made since the 1930s?
It is absolutely staggering that we could send a probe to Pluto and beyond. All of this remote control that they can do from NASA seems to me absolutely extraordinary.

Were you disappointed to learn that Pluto lost its status as a planet?
Well, I was largely indifferent because, as I see it, it is not demoted. It was there, and it still is. Though I believe I heard that the word of the year for 2007 from the American Dialect Society was "plutoed," meaning "demoted."

So how do you like the new designation—plutoid?
It is a nice conceit, I think one would say.