The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The child who named Pluto.

Venetia Phair is one of an unusual breed. She is remembered for something she did as a child. Venetia named Pluto, the former planet.

I write of her, because she recently passed away at the age of 90. Although she had a long life, it was a moment when she was 11 years old, that brought her to world attention. Her grandfather, Falconer Madan, was reading the Times newspaper one morning, in 1930, when he noted the story of the discovery of a new planet, by Clyde Tombaugh of the Lowell Observatory. Grandfather and grandchild both wondered what the new planet should be called. Little Venetia Phair thought for a while, steeped as she was, in classical mythology: "Why not call it Pluto?", she asked.

Falconer Madan, was a retired librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. He duly called his friend, the Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, Herbert Hall Turner. Professor Turner was that day at a meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society, where the naming of the new planet was being discussed. He raised the potential name with Clyde W. Tombaugh, the discoverer at the Lowell Observatory. The Lowell people loved the name, because the founder of their observatory had been Percival Lowell, the businessman, author and astronomer. The first two letters of Pluto are the initials of Percival Lowell's name...and so Pluto was duly chosen as the new name.

Those who believe that Pluto the "planet" was named after the Disney character, should note that the "planet" was named first.

In 2006, Pluto was downgraded by the International Astronomical Union to a mere dwarf planet. Venetia Phair was unconcerned by the change.

Perhaps in thanks for naming Pluto, the astronomical community named an asteroid after her: 6235 Burney. Venetia Phair's maiden name had been Venetia Burney.

She grew up to be a mathematics and economics teacher, having studied mathematics at Cambridge.

Few who live are remembered. Fewer still are remembered for something that they did as a child. Venetia Phair's life makes a wonderful story of how, even a child can make a contribution, even if it is only a name. It was still a clever name, given its connection to Percival Lowell, through his initials. That showed insight.

Percival Lowell had started the search for an unknown planet, fourteen years previously. He never lived to see the discovery that he thought would one day be made...though his name lives on in Pluto, in its own way.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:28 PM 


Blogger Christine said...

Wow. I didn't know about Pluto being for "P.L.", Percival Lowell. I like that. I did find it interesting, that when Pluto was still considered a planet, it was sometimes called "Pluto-Charon"--a double planet because its moon was about the same size as it and was very close. There were two other satellites, Nix and Hydra.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. I thought it rather clever of a young girl to link the name of the man whose observatory discovered it, with classical mythology in the traditional way of naming planets. There is a certain economy of thought there which is very appealing.

The funny thing is, of course, that she showed such dextrousness with words as a child...but ended up in mathematics!

You are very well informed about Pluto, Christine. Do you have a general interest in astronomy?

8:54 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

Yes, I like astronomy a lot. I was excited to teach my students an essay on the Horizons spacecraft that will go near Pluto and into the Kuiper Belt.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

That's good to hear.

Personally, I am looking forward to what the James Webb Space Telescope might is a huge telescope at 6.5m, considering that it is going to be in space. There should be many interesting results.

9:06 PM  

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