Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Not Farewell, but Fare Forward, Voyagers"

It was with tremendous sadness that I learned last week that Venetia Burney Phair, the 11-year-old girl who in 1930 first suggested the name Pluto for the newly-discovered planet, passed away in England at the age of 90. That’s one more person whom I will now never get the chance to meet.

New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern did get that opportunity in late 2006 after inviting Phair to the launch of New Horizons. Phair could not make the trip to Cape Canaveral, so instead Stern visited her in England, where he presented her with a plaque commemorating the use of her name on one of New Horizons' scientific instruments, the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter. That device was chosen to bear her name because it was built entirely by students, echoing Phair’s own student involvement in astronomy by naming Pluto and intended as an example to encourage young people to pursue an interest in science.

The story of Phair’s naming of Pluto is told in a 13-minute film now available for purchase online. Titled “Naming Pluto,” it can be bought from this site: http://www.fatherfilms.com/shop .

Stern describes Phair as “a thoroughly likeable, intelligent, and endearing woman.” He and the New Horizons team pay tribute to her in their latest blog entry at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/news_center/news/20090508.php .

Phair was fortunate in that her grandfather, Falconer Madan, was well connected in the academic world, being friends with Oxford astronomy professor Herbert Hall Turner. Madan presented Turner with Phair’s choice of name, ironically at the same time the Royal Astronomical Society was discussing what to call the new planet.

Today, when the only connection a young person or one of any age needs to potentially have such an impact is a working Internet connection, opportunities abound for everyone to potentially make a lasting contribution, whether to astronomy or any other field of interest. Clyde Tombaugh, who was born in 1906, had to scramble to find astronomy books with which to educate himself as a boy interested in the field. Today, hundreds of books on the subject are geared toward people of all ages and levels of education, and countless web sites can be accessed from the comforts of one’s home.

If anything, making a significant accomplishment to astronomy is easier and more accessible to any person today than in any other time in history. Most of all, this should be emphasized to young people when educating them about Phair and holding her up as an example for what any of them can do.

Phair—unlike this writer, a fake redhead who walks around wearing “Save Pluto” shirts—is the original Pluto girl. It was her interests in both classical mythology and astronomy that led her to suggest the name of the Roman ruler of the underworld for the newly discovered remote, enigmatic planet.

As with many discoveries, there was some contention before the name Pluto was formally adopted in May 1930. Constance Lowell, the widow of Percival Lowell, who had built the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894 and who had initiated the search for a trans-Neptunian planet but died in 1916, advocated both “Lowell” and her own name, “Constance.” Other names considered were Zeus, Kronos, and Persephone.  Zeus and Kronos were not appropriate, as these are the Greek names for Jupiter and Saturn, and the name Persephone had already been given to an asteroid.

One person strongly reacted against the name Pluto, which he equated with Satan. Captain Charles E. Freeman, superintendent of the US Naval Observatory in Washington, is said to have remarked, “Pluto is the prototype of Satan in many minds, and drops out for that reason, perhaps.”

But astronomers at the Lowell Observatory immediately saw the appropriateness of the name Pluto and unanimously chose it for the new planet.

Freeman’s equating of the mythological Pluto with Satan is reflective of a lack of familiarity with Greek and Roman mythology. The underworld that the mythic Pluto ruled was the abode of the dead, not the hell of eternal punishment. Titled Hades, it was an all encompassing region that did have a designated punishment area for evildoers, known as Tartarus, but also contained many other sections including a version of paradise for the virtuous dead, known as the Elysian Fields. In some versions of the myth, there is support for reincarnation, with souls preparing for rebirth guided by Pluto’s wife, Persephone, back to the world of the living after drinking from the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness that induced amnesia for past lives and existence in the underworld.

Even though I never met her, I feel a kinship to Venetia Phair, sharing her interests in both mythology and astronomy, interests that all too often today take a back seat to so-called celebrity gossip among young people who do not know the gems they are missing.

And I cannot help but notice several uncanny coincidences that strengthen this personal feeling of connection.

Phair’s great uncle, Henry Madan, a housemaster at Eaton, had proposed the names Phobos and Deimos for the moons of Mars in 1877. In Roman mythology, these are the names of attendants of Mars, the god of war.

This spring, desiring some formal education in astronomy, which I do not have, I enrolled in an online Graduate Certificate in Astronomy program at Swinburne University, based in Melbourne, Australia. The class in which I am enrolled, “Exploring the Solar System,” has two sections, titled Phobos and Deimos. I am in the Phobos section.

Venetia Phair’s obituary notes she was born July 11, 1918. My birthday is one day earlier, July 10, and both my college roommate and my running mate in my campaign for a local council seat in 2005 were born on July 11 (though in different years).

T.S. Eliot, one of my favorite writers, begins his famous poem The Wasteland, a prophetic social commentary on the 20th century and the meaninglessness of so many ideals previously valued, begins that work with the line, “April is the cruelest month.” It is one thing to find barrenness and death in late autumn, the place where they belong in the cycle of nature. It is an entirely different thing to find barrenness and death in what should be the heart of spring, a time of flowers and new life.

April 2009 was a personal heartbreaker for me. From seemingly out of nowhere, like a thief in the night, pancreatic cancer stole the life of my 95-year-old grandmother, Ethel Rosengarten, who died on April 20, ten days before Venetia’s death. What does a fighter like me do when the death sentence comes, and there is no one and no way to fight? We sat at her bedside, talked to her, and sang, even when she was unresponsive. I pleaded with a nurse to do something, a fleeting vestige of that childhood part of us all that believes the grownup world knows all the answers and can solve all the problems.

Only a week before my grandmother died, my best friend and I visited her in the hospital, both wearing “Save Pluto” shirts we had ordered online. That day, which happened to be both Passover and Easter, she was doing better and was quite popular, with visitors constantly coming. “Pluto,” she read from my shirt, smiling, knowing of my fascination with this tiny planet.  “We’ll look at the picture of Pluto from New Horizons when it gets there in 2015,” I said, hoping against hope that by sheer force of will, I could make it come true.

But it was not to be. Tragically, neither she nor Venetia Burney Phair will be around for that day.

And I could not help but think a lot about death and about Pluto, that mythological representation of death and rebirth, of the unknown and enigmatic, Pluto, whose story reflects the universal human hope that maybe death is not the end of everything, just the end of one cycle.

Eliot, in The Four Quartets, conveys this sentiment in his description of life as a voyage:

“'Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbor
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: "on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death"—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.
O voyagers, O seamen, You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.'
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.”

In response to Pluto’s demotion, Phair said she was largely indifferent but then noted she preferred that Pluto remain a planet. I confidently believe that in the long term, it will, and many, many others are convinced of the same.

So to two special women, one known internationally for naming my favorite planet and the other a personal loved one with her own life of courageous accomplishments that spanned the 20th century and beyond, I choose not to say good-bye, but to use Eliot’s words instead.

“Not farewell, but fare forward, voyagers.”