For then eleven-year-old Venetia Burney, March 14, 1930 started out very much like any normal day. She was eating breakfast with her mother and grandfather. Her grandfather, Falconer Madan (who in addition to having a cool name was a university librarian retired from Oxford) read out some exciting news from the morning paper.
Earlier that year, on February 18, an amazing discovery had been made by Lowell Observatory photographic telescope operator Clyde Tombaugh (who also had a pretty cool name). Detecting subtle differences between two photographs of the night sky, Tombaugh was able to zero in on an elusive body in space, a ninth planet known then as Planet X. Long believed to exist, this small icy planet might have served as the explanation for the wonky orbital patterns of Uranus and Neptune.
But one question remained. Madan wondered aloud what the new ninth planet would be called. Young Venetia thought for a moment and told her grandfather that as the other planets were named after Roman gods (the exception being Uranus because that’s just comedy gold), then this new planet should be Pluto.
Like any good grandfather, Madan thought his granddaughter was brilliant. So he contacted an astronomer friend, who passed it along to the research team at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, who announced the official name of the ninth planet in our solar system on May 1, 1930.
For 76 years, everyone was happy. The smallest little underdog planet in the solar system, discovered by a non-college-educated amateur astronomer plucked from obscurity because of his enthusiasm, and named by a clever-eleven-year-old girl, captured human imagination. Even Mickey Mouse named his best friend after the plucky little ice planet, and generations of school children remembered its name because of the mnemonic: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.
And everybody loves pizza. Except for Caltech astronomer Mike Brown (who has a very common name), also known as the man who killed Pluto. I have to assume his mother never brought him any pizza. I admit that like many (okay, probably all) amateur astronomy enthusiasts, I was a little miffed with Brown for a while. I like Pluto.
But I understand how science works. I understand that the most plausible idea is only the truth until it isn’t. I can accept that Brown and all those other backstabbing, planet-murdering scientists who voted in 2006 to demote my favorite non-Earth planet to dwarf status probably had a point.
And in January of this year, Brown softened the blow when he and fellow Caltech researcher Konstantin Batygin (another super cool name), announced that they may have discovered the real mystery planet behind the wonky orbital patterns of Uranus and Neptune and the ring of icy debris and dwarf planets that include Pluto.
I don’t really expect this new, much larger planet (it’s about ten times the size of Earth) to replace Pluto in my affections. And since today is the 86th anniversary of the discovery of our original number 9, I plan to remember it fondly. But I will watch with interest as Brown and Batygin attempt to verify this new planet’s presence via telescope over the next few years.
I suppose when they do, it will need an extremely cool name. I hope they leave that part up to the clever eleven-year-olds out there, who are bound to choose a name that begins with P. Because everyone likes pizza. And I can’t wait to celebrate by serving nine of them.