May 24 – Oh, Hades!

Today’s Factismal: Planet X was renamed “Pluto” 83 years ago.

Though T. S. Elliot may think that naming cats is a difficult business, he’d never tried naming a planet. When Neptune was found, it took intense international negotiations to decide upon a name. And when Pluto was found, it took a team of experts. Though most people today would agree that Pluto is an excellent name, that wasn’t always the case; many people hated the name when it was announced.

Why was Pluto so hard to name? Because Pluto was found as a result of the work of many people; in some ways, the search for Pluto was one of the first “big science” projects. In the late 1800’s, astronomers thought that Uranus and Neptune were being ever-so-slightly tugged out of place by another big planet (since then, we’ve rerun the calculations and found that there isn’t any discrepancy). For want of a better name, they called the unknown orb “Planet X”. And Percival Lowell, the man who told us about the canals on Mars (which we now know don’t exist) and founded the world’s greatest observatory (since replaced by many others), was determined to be the person who found it. For two decades, he searched. And for two decades, he failed.

The two photographic plates that discovered Pluto. (Image courtesy of Lowell Observatory Archives)

Fourteen years after his death, the observatory that he founded took on a new researcher by the name of Clyde Tombaugh. Through sheer diligence, by looking through thousands of photographs taken over the past decade, Tombaugh was able to locate “Planet X”. But what to name it? By tradition, the discoverer of a planet was allowed to name it. But Tombaugh was a mere researcher and didn’t even have a college degree. So many others tried to insert themselves into the process.

Lowell’s widow wanted to name it “Constance” (which just happened to be her name). Tombaugh, it is rumored, wanted to name it “Bob” (after his best friend). And people across the country sent in suggestions, from the zany Zymal to the staid Cronus to the odd Odin. More than 1,000 different names were suggested. In the end, the entire observatory staff voted on what to name the thing, and Pluto won.

If you’d like your chance to name a planet, then now is the time to try. All you have to do is look through the data at Planet Hunters. Once you find the planet, it is yours to name!

One thought on “May 24 – Oh, Hades!

  1. Pingback: January 20 – Scientists Discover New Planet! (Not) | Little facts about science

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