Astronomical Matters


(This 801st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 6, 2006.)


Two quite different astronomy-related matters form the basis for this week's column.


My first subject relates to an 87-year old retired English schoolteacher, Mrs. Venetia Phair. It seems that she is the only living person who named one of the planets in our solar system. She suggested the name Pluto for our ninth planet when she was an eleven year old elementary school student. (She was Venetia Burney then.)


Venetia Bumey at 11

The Girl Who named Pluto


"I think it was on March 14, 1930, and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandmother," she said in an interview with Edward Goldstein of NASA Public Affairs, "and my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news of the discovery of a new planet and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I after a short pause, said, 'Why not call it Pluto?'"


Mrs. Phair explained that she was familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children books and also knew the names of the other planets. "I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn't been used. And there it was."


The story might well have ended there but for a series of coincidences. The grandfather at that breakfast table was Falconer Madan, a retired librarian of Oxford University's famous Bodleian Library. Impressed by Venetia's suggestion, he passed it on to Herbert Hall Turner, a friend of his and an Oxford astronomy professor.


Turner thought it was an excellent name for the new heavenly body. He sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Clyde Tombaugh had discovered the planet. On May 1, 1930, the name Pluto was formally adopted.


Mrs. Phair made a point of the fact that Walt Disney's cartoon dog Pluto had nothing to do with her suggestion.


My second subject is quite different. I invite you to consider the Summer Triangle, a trio of bright stars in the August sky that form a pattern that comes very close to a right triangle. This is an array of stars that you should be able to find even if you know absolutely nothing about astronomy. You don't have to know where Polaris, the North Star, is; you don't have to know any constellations. It would only help to know which direction is north.


So do yourself a favor. Even if you have never done so before, go out on the first cloudless night and introduce yourself to the wonderful night sky through these three stars.


They are very easy to find. They are the brightest stars in their part of the sky. At this time of year, brighter stars are either near the south and southwestern horizon or out of sight below the horizon.


Okay, what and where are these stars. At 9:00 p.m. all this month the brightest, Vega, is almost directly overhead. It is the star at the right angle of the triangle. Some distance to the southeast of Vega is Altair, the second brightest, and a shorter distance to the northeast of Vega is Deneb.


There are, of course, other nearby stars, but you will find that they are not nearly as bright.


Once you have found the three stars, you can check yourself by looking to see if they are indeed the corners of a right triangle.


The summer triangle is not a constellation. In fact, the three stars of this triangle are each in a different constellation. Vega is in the small constellation Lyra, the lyre. It is made up of six stars oriented south toward Altair. Vega itself is in a triangle that shares a corner with a parallelogram.


Altair is in the constellation Aquila, the eagle. Its constellation is a group of eight stars that form a kind of arrow pointing toward Deneb. Deneb is in the constellation Cygnus, the swan. Its six stars form a cross with Deneb itself at its apex.


Having included that information, I add my opinion that whoever named those and other constellations had vivid imaginations for these appear to me to have no relationship whatsoever to a lyre, an eagle or a swan. They might better be called the box, the pointer and the cross.-- Gerry Rising