Naming Pluto (Review)

[/caption]Naming Pluto explores the chain of events that lead to Pluto’s naming and in 2007 sees Venetia Phair viewing Pluto for the very first time through a telescope, on her 89th birthday, 77 years after Pluto’s discovery. A wonderful, intimate look into the story behind how Pluto got its name. A review of the short film directed and produced by Ginita Jimenez, distributed by Father Films.

In recent years, Pluto has seen its status change from being a planet to what many people view as a planetary underclass. The reasons behind this have been set out by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to cater for the increasing number of Solar System bodies being discovered; the traditional nine planets have had to make room for a growing minor planet population. Unfortunately, Pluto was at the front line as it inhabits a region of space dominated by the gas giant Neptune, plus thousands of other Kuiper belt objects. Although the mysterious body lost its planetary status (as it does not have the ability to “clear its own orbit”), it has taken the title of “dwarf planet” and now has an entire class of object named in its honour: “Plutoids”.

However, the recent tumultuous history of the traditional “9th planet” has not impacted the fascination we have for Pluto. It has, and always will be, viewed with intrigue and wonder.

The key to Pluto’s romantic tale begins in the year 1930 when a mysterious heavenly was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, a 23 year-old astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. However, the honour of naming Pluto didn’t rest on Tombaugh’s shoulders. Over 5000 miles away in Oxford (UK) an 11 year old girl was having breakfast with her grandfather, wondering what this newly discovered planet should be called…

The Pluto system seen from the surface of Hydra (NASA)
The Pluto system seen from the surface of Hydra (NASA)
Naming Pluto starts out with some stunning visuals from 2006 of NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission launching from Cape Canaveral. Throughout the opening tour of the Solar System, we can hear the voice of Venetia Burney as she is interviewed by NASA Public Affairs officer Edward Goldstein during the launch.

When Goldstein asks whether she had ever seen Pluto through a telescope, the clear and articulate voice of Venetia replies, “I don’t think I have. I’ve just seen a photograph.” And so the journey begins, where Venetia explains her fascination with Pluto and a number of experts (including the enigmatic Sir Patrick Moore) help to explain the facts behind the discovery of Pluto to the scientific endeavour of the search for “Planet X”.

One of the key moments is when Venetia is describing when she decided on the name for the heavenly body. At age 11, had an acute interest in ancient mythology, so she chose the name because Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld; a fitting name considering the cold, dark nature of Pluto’s 248 year orbit. In a fortuitous chain of events, her grandfather, a former librarian of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, passed the suggestion via letter to Professor Herbert Hall Turner saying that his granddaughter had chosen a “thoroughly suitable name: PLUTO.” Hall Turner, thrilled with the candidate name, sent Venetia’s idea to colleagues in the USA, at the Lowell Observatory.

Venetia talks about her relationship with Pluto. A model of NASA's New Horizons probe is also in view (© Father Films)
Venetia talks about her relationship with Pluto. A model of NASA's New Horizons probe is also in view (© Father Films)
Pouring a cup of tea, Venetia recounts that historic day in 1930. “It was about 8 o’clock and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather,” she says very matter of factually. “My grandfather, as usual, opened the paper, The Times, and in it he read that a new planet had been discovered. He wondered what it should be called. We all wondered. And then I said, “why not call it Pluto?” And the whole thing stemmed from that.”

A special delight is when Venetia visits St. Anne’s Primary School in Surrey to participate in their class project all about Pluto. It goes to show that even young school children have fallen under Pluto’s spell. One 9 year-old pupil, Katie, shares her concerns about Pluto’s demotion, “Some people say that Pluto isn’t a real planet, so I’m looking forward to Venetia coming because I want to find out if that’s true.”

Sir Patrick Moore shares his views on Pluto (© Father Films)
Sir Patrick Moore shares his views on Pluto (© Father Films)
Legendary astronomer Sir Patrick Moore enthusiastically gives his views on Pluto too, having co-authored a 1980 book with discoverer Tombaugh called Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto, he is the ideal character to defend the demotion from planet to dwarf planet by the IAU saying, “It’s not demoted! […] you can call it whatever you like. It’s there!” I have been a huge fan of Sir Patrick’s writing, and his regular BBC program The Sky at Night is essential astronomy watching, and has been for the last 50 years!

Other guests on the film uncover the various attributes of Pluto’s discovery, delving into the history and future of the planetary lightweight on the outermost reaches of the Solar System.

Venetia meets Patrick at his home for the second time (© Father Films)
Venetia meets Patrick at his home for the second time (© Father Films)
The Naming Pluto adventure culminates in 2006 when Venetia and Sir Patrick meet (for the second time) at his West Sussex home to make an attempt at observing Pluto through the telescope in his garden. Patrick was overjoyed to see Venetia again and chuckles as he introduces her to the camera crew, “The lady who named Pluto!

Yes, indeed,” the ever gracious Venetia replies, smiling.

Unfortunately, the UK summer weather conspired against the possibility of clear skies, and any chance of Patrick’s 15″ reflector of spying Pluto was lost. However, there is a fantastic twist in the tale, bringing the whole film to a wonderfully emotional ending.

All in all, Naming Pluto is a fabulous tribute, not only to Venetia, but to the astronomical process. Although Pluto has undergone a change in status these last few years, it remains an important, permanent feature of the Solar System. This well-crafted story gives the viewer an excellent overview of Pluto’s discovery, naming and the magic it holds today for the 9 year-olds at St. Anne’s to Venetia who named the planet nearly 80 years ago…

For more information about Pluto, check out the Guide to Space: Pluto »

A big thank you goes to writer, director and producer Ginita Jimenez for sharing this magnificent production with me. My copy will have pride of place with my growing collection of space science DVDs, a timeless memento of a historic time for astronomy.

If you want your own copy, or want to buy it as a gift, contact Ginita at: [email protected]

Naming Pluto is currently on the international film festival circuit so if you’d prefer watching it on the big screen, and are in the area, please see below. There will also be a blog and updates on

30TH & 31ST JANUARY 2009


MARCH 6-8, 2009

FEB 25-MAR 08 2009

Details of the film:

Title: Naming Pluto
DVD: 16:9 (FHA) (Colour)
Audio: Stereo & 5.1 Dolby
Duration: 13mins
Language: English

All images and media used in this review are copyrighted to Father Films 2008. All rights reserved

23 Replies to “Naming Pluto (Review)”

  1. Hi Jozef, It’s OK, the Father Films website will be modified ASAP, a typo that got lost in the edit 🙂

    Hi Sofia, I thought that too. But in actuality, Hades is the Greek god of the Underworld. Pluto is the Roman god of the Underworld. Was good for me to write this article, I wasn’t very well versed with ancient mythology before 🙂

    Cheers, Ian

  2. Well, Pluto was a Greek God of the underworld. He was a brother of Jupiter and his wife was Persephone.

  3. In the meanwhile, I opened the book of mythology, and Hades was a second name of Pluto.
    Think that I always knew that Pluto was the God of the underworld, so seemed very strange to me to read that he was Roman ! Romans took a lot from the auncient greeks, so it’s very probable that they refered him like their God.
    Anyway it’s just mythology !

  4. Indeed, in Wikipedia he’ s refered as Roman. But further expolains that the name derives from the Greek God ecc. ecc.

  5. The most interesting thing about Greek astronomy was the constellations. They studied the motions of the celestial objects and they combibed this data with the mythology.
    In this way they could remember the stars of every season easily…. It was a work that took them about 100 years, I have a book on this but I didn’ t finished yet…

  6. Awww!
    Very, very, disappointed with this article…
    …and there i no mention of Disneyland or Walt Disney!!!

    (The kiddies won’t be very pleased.)

  7. The actual name of Pluto is thought to mean Wealthy One, derived from the Greek word, ploutos (Latin plouton), hence the use of modern words like plutocracy – meaning the government ruled by the wealthy elite or plutonium, because it was first generated, the cost was ridiculously expensive to make.
    (I have also been confused with the term “plutonic relationship” – which infers relationships at some distance – like Pluto’s distant placement and orbit. In the literal sense, it should be a relationship based on wealth of both partners!)
    Pluto was mostly seen as wealthy because of the living’s life debt, as everything born on the earth will eventually return to his abode the underworld. In both Greek and Roman times the dead had ritually placed one coin or coins on the tongue of someone who had died before burial.
    It was believed such enactment was the needed for payment to the ferryman, Charon, so that the person who died could cross the river Styx and enter the underworld and the afterlife.
    It is also funny the debate on the name of the god in question, the New Oxford American Dictionary says; “Greek Mythology the god of the underworld. Also called Hades.” Probably the possible origin of the mix-up?

  8. The name Pluto is the latin form of the Greek ‘Pluton’, meaning ‘the rich one’. It is a byname for Hades, the god of the underworld in his guise as a god of fertility and giver of crops.

  9. Added thought…
    I read somewhere once that astrologers own ruling planet was actually Pluto, only because it made the successful ones really wealthy!.

  10. Dear Ian, yesterday it was very late at night here, I could’ t continue. Today I red the whole myth and I’ll try to write it in simple English.
    Hades was a place in the very depth of the earth, three times darker than dark. In this place underground, black rivers were flowing, and the shadows of the dead people were walking at their sides. There was also a fountain of oblivion water, to drink and forget the life on earth. In the dark fields of this place, pale flowers called daffodils were moving as the souls passing through them. They were groaning about their life without joy, light and desires. Nobody could return from this kingdom of sadness.
    In the entrance, there was a dog with 3 heads and a lot of snakes that were whistling terrible around its neck. Charon, a horrible old boatman, was bringing the souls of the dead men through the river Acheron to Hades. The water in this river is black like pitch, while an other river, Kokitos, was a river of blood. Charon always refused firmly to bring dead souls back in the luminous side.
    The king of this kingdom, where the light, the joy and even the sadness of the life on earth were never entering, was Pluto, brother of Jupiter. He was sitting on a golden throne with his wife Persephone, and the implacable Goddesses of revenge, Erinyes, served him. They were horrible, were the Goddesses that bring the feelings of guiltiness, torturing in the people.
    Beside the throne of Pluto there were also 3 judgments and the God of death, Thanatos, with a sword in his hand. He wearied a black cloak and had enormous cold wings. With his sword, was cutting a tuft of hair of the man who was dying and he was taking his soul. (The monks in Tibet believe that hair are antennas that emit and receive various waves, including the waves of thinking and as they don’t want to be disturbed, are completely shaved).
    Near Death, there were some winged dark creatures, Kires, which were flying over the fields of battles, taking a great joy to see the bodies of the worriers ready to die. They were laying down sipping insatiably the hot blood of their wounds, taking their souls.
    Beside the throne of Pluto was standing also Hypnos, the young and pretty God of sleep. He was flying over earth, with a pot full of filters that bring sleep to people. He was very powerful, nobody could resist him, even the king of Gods, Jupiter.
    In the place were flying also the Gods of dreams, good and bad, and a freaky ghost which was cheating people at night in purpose to bring them in a secret place where could sip their blood to death. There was also a female dragon, Lamia, which was entering in the houses of happy mothers at night to steal and sip the blood of their kids.
    The Goddess of the ghosts and the dragons was Ekati, a freaky creature herself, with three heads and three bodies. In the dark nights without moonlight, she was walking around the streets and the cemeteries, with her horrible company, surrounded by dogs that were living at the sides of Styga, the main sacred frozen river, in the depths of Hades.
    The kingdom of Hades is scary and people hate it.
    Dante, in his Divine comedy, describes such an underground place as Hell. As the king of Hell is Devil, I think that we can think Pluto as the ancient Devil. (At his time paradise didn’t exist).
    Dante wrote a masterpiece of literature, he describes the various places in Hell in a way that makes you shiver, but as I saw today, he based on many elements of Greek mythology.
    Remaining in the Pluto system, I searched some information about Hydra, but the story of its birth is unknown. Is very probable that represents the horrible sea creature with a snake body and a head of 9 dragonheads killed by the ancient hero, Hercules. I didn’t find any connection with Pluto yet.
    Nix instead, stands for the Goddess of the night. She moves in the sky with a chariot surrounded by stars that shedding spotlight on earth. When morning comes, stars are running to hide in her arms.
    In few words, Pluto was a bad God, with a bad company, living in a bad place…The name given fits perfect, we will wait to see the data of the new horizons mission to say more.

  11. On the other hand, what do you aspect from a God of darkness?
    I red also that when he saw Persephone, daughter of Goddess of cereals Ceres, he decided at once to steal her. So, he ordered to Ghaia, Goddess of earth, to make a flower with a rare, intense flavor. When Persephone went to smell it, he appeared from the depths, opening the earth and brought her with him in the dark.
    Ceres, who was very sad for the lost of her daughter, decided to stop to be a Goddess, so the fertility of earth stopped also. Jupiter then was forced to persuade Pluto to return Persephone to her mother. Pluto accepted with the condition that Persephone would remain his wife and that she could pass the 2/3 of the year on earth, and the 1/3 with him. So it’s done and every time Persephone returns to Hades, winter begins on earth. But when she comes back in spring, her happy mother makes all the flowers and the trees grow, giving people fruits and cereals.
    Romans were more practical, so they connected the name with the wealth. But Greek considered Pluto in this way, the God of Hades.

  12. This sounds like a wonderful film. However, I continue to object in the strongest possible terms to your statement that Pluto’s status has changed, that it is no longer a planet, and that it is part of a “minor planet” population. By reciting this as fact, you are obscuring the real fact that this view is only ONE side of a still highly contested debate, with many astronomers still viewing Pluto very much as a planet.

    In “Is Pluto A Planet?” Dr. David Weintraub rejects the classification of Pluto or any object in hydrostatic equilibrium as a “minor planet,” as this term has traditionally been used to designate shapeless, inert asteroids.

    If Katie at St. Anne’s Primary School in Surrey reads this, I hope she comes to realize that Pluto IS a real planet and that many astronomers still hold this position, as can be seen from the petition here: . She can also hear both sides of this very much ongoing debate at which contains the transcripts of a conference held in August 2008 to address this issue, titled the Great Planet Debate.

    Please do not speak of “Pluto’s status having been changed” as a done deal. It is not. Four percent of the IAU voted on this; most are not planetary scientists, and most planetary scientists are not IAU members. There already efforts underway to get the IAU decision undone. It would be far more accurate for you to describe the status of Pluto as a matter of ongoing controversy.

    Feel welcome to visit my blog at to read about why Pluto is a planet and about the latest efforts to get it reinstated.

  13. Hi Laurel:- If your comment contained any hyperlinks it is likely that it has been held up in the moderation queue. It should appear soon, but I have no idea when, depends on how Fraser has set up the filters.

    Cheers, Ian

  14. AJames Says:

    “The actual name of Pluto is thought to mean Wealthy One, derived from the Greek word, ploutos (Latin plouton), hence the use of modern words like … plutonium, because it was first generated, the cost was ridiculously expensive to make.”

    Really? So it has nothing to do with the fact that the 92nd thru 94th elements are Uranium, Neptunium and Plutonium?

  15. wow sofia, thanks. it would make a great mural.

    p.s. pluto, you’ll always be a planet in my heart.

  16. formulaterp Says:

    “Really? So it has nothing to do with the fact that the 92nd thru 94th elements are Uranium, Neptunium and Plutonium?”

    This might be right, but according to the book “Plutonium” By Jeremy Bernstein. He says the manufacture (pg.155);
    “the first half-gram lot of plutonium came from Los Alamos from the Clinton reactor in Oak Ridge in the spring of 1944. The cost in milligrams must have come to millions. …was $5.24 per milligram.”
    I think this statement appears in the early part of the book.”
    However, the order as you say would also make some sense…

    Do you have some reference to support this statement?

  17. Pantzov, as the only Greek here, I had to write something. But if you read Divine Comedy, the description of hell is really cruel. Dante describes the same place, very – very well. It’s a masterpiece !

  18. 1789, eight years after Herschel discovered George, oops, I mean Uranus, came the discovery by Klaproth of the element (92 protons) that he named uranium, with the mankinds discovery of the first ever new planet Uranus in mind.

    May 1, 1930 was when Lowell Observatory officially proposed the name Pluto. The offical symbol is the juxtabposed letter P and L, which is the initials for Percival Lowell who started the search.

    1940, McMillan and Abelson discover neptunium, the 93 proton element.

    Feb. 1941, Seaborg et. al. discovered a new 94 proton element and named it plutonium.

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