Sunday, July 12, 2015

The day Pluto came to breakfast: Venetia Burney and a life in mathematics

The girl who named Pluto became a mathematician.

Pluto comes to breakfast

Report from the Springfield Union, USA, March 14, 1930.
Image courtesy of Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers

One morning, when Venetia Burney was 11 years old, the news that a ninth planet had been discovered was reported in the Times. In her own words:

I think it was on March the 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I, after a short pause, said, "Why not call it Pluto?" I did know, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children's books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn't been used.
This was no ordinary grandfather. Falconer Madan was the retired head librarian of the Bodleian in Oxford, and his brother Henry had named the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. The planets were part of Venetia's early life on Earth. 

The planetary walk

At her primary school, Venetia recalled in 2006,
we used to play games in the university park, putting - I think they were lumps of clay - at the right distance from each other to represent the distances of the planets from the Sun.
The 'games' were in fact a teaching exercise devised by Miss K. Claxton.
Apparently it all began with a school 'Nature Walk,' which one day turned itself into a 'Planet Walk.' In those days Form II still used The Sciences by E.S. Holden, and we had reached the section on the relative sizes and distances of the planets.
Leaving the sun, represented by a circle two feet in diameter on the classroom blackboard, we set out from school carefully carrying our planets! After 41 paces we placed Mercury (the size of a canary seed) on an Oxford pavement. After 77 paces Venus, represented by a small pea, was laid down. The Earth (a pea), Mars (a small bead), Jupiter (an orange), Saturn (a golf ball) were duly placed—the last after zealous counting of 1,019 paces. Then we let our imaginations finish the walk, for it seemed best to turn back while our enthusiasm and our legs still remained fresh!
The follow-up to this came with the reading of The Age of Fable, when the children became more intimate with the characters of the Greek gods and goddesses and the nature of their kingdoms. And then one morning, March 14th, 1930, we read in the daily papers of the discovery of a new planet, a 'dark' one.
The Age of Fable (1855), by Thomas Bulfinch, recounts the story of Pluto's abduction of Proserpine, and her mother Ceres' search to find her in the underworld - not unlike Percival Lowell's search for the mysterious Planet X in the outer darkness of the solar system. However the silence, the lapping waters, the murky atmosphere, the deep pits and the darkness of the realms of the dead are most vividly described in Bulfinch's retelling of Aeneas's descent under the Earth. Clearly this made a great impression on Venetia.
Falconer Madan later acknowledged the role Miss Claxton's teaching had played in Venetia's thought process. He wrote to her in June 1930 to say that Venetia's:
acquaintance with some of the old legends of Greek and Roman deities and heroes, and that 'nature walk' in the University Parks, by which she was taught the relative spaces between the Planets and the Sun, and the gloom of distance, enabled her to grasp at once the special elements of the situation, and to be the first to make a suggestion so reasonable as to be accepted (it appears) by the whole world of Science.

The chain of chance

Falconer Madan pondered his granddaughter's suggestion, and dropped a note to his friend Professor Herbert Hall Turner, a Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. Professor Turner then sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory (misspelling Venetia's name), requesting consideration of Pluto as the name for such a 'dark, gloomy planet'.

From the Lowell Observatory Archives

As it turns out, Venetia wasn't the only person who thought of Pluto. After all, the major planets had all received the names of Greek and Roman gods, and there were only so many to go around.  However, her connections to astronomy through her grandfather's friendship with Professor Turner, and her great-uncle's previous efforts in planetary nomenclature, made her story the right one for the time. On May 1 1930, the name became official.

A life in science

After her stellar intervention in planetary science, Venetia attended a secondary school (most likely as a boarder) which had a heavy focus on mathematics and science. She went on to study mathematics at Newnham College at Cambridge University. Newnham, established in 1871 to give women an opportunity to attend university, had a proud tradition in mathematics. One of its founders was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who in 1870 topped the entire university in maths (and later became a famous suffragist). However, women could not officially receive degrees until 1948, so Venetia would have received a discreet certificate in the mail, her name, like nearly 1000 other women, not even appearing in the graduation lists.

During the Second World War she put her mathematical skills to a more mundane use by training as a chartered accountant. She married Maxwell Phair, a classics teacher, in 1947; and perhaps influenced by him, and memories of Miss Claxton's creative approach to learning, she became a teacher herself in the 1950s. Naturally, she taught new generations in her own areas of expertise.

The legacy of a legend

When the New Horizons mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, Venetia was invited, but at the age of 88 did not feel up to the transatlantic journey. She had never made a big deal out of her role in Pluto's birth as the newest member of the solar system, but appreciated the recognition:
I have my kind invitation from NASA, and I treasure that too. I shall put it on the mantelpiece, I think, conspicuously, to look at. And I just wish everybody concerned with the launch that the whole thing will be the success that they hope.

Venetia Burney never saw Pluto through a telescope; her only glimpse of it was a dim photograph. But now, an instrument named after her is hurtling through space towards the ninth planet. Fittingly, for someone who devoted their life to science education, it is a student experiment: the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter.

And over the months to come, the topographical and geological features of our least known planetary neighbour will be given names on the theme of the underworld and exploration, as determined by a young girl on a morning in the world long ago.