[/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.
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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…
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.
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.”
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.
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 www.fatherfilms.com.
THROUGH WOMEN’S EYES – USA
30TH & 31ST JANUARY 2009
JAIPUR INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL – INDIA
SEBASTOPOL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL – USA
MARCH 6-8, 2009
CINEQUEST FILM FESTIVAL – USA
FEB 25-MAR 08 2009
OFFICIAL SELECTION FOR BEST SHORT FILM AWARD
Details of the film:
Title: Naming Pluto
DVD: 16:9 (FHA) (Colour)
Audio: Stereo & 5.1 Dolby
All images and media used in this review are copyrighted to Father Films 2008. All rights reserved www.fatherfilms.com.