Saturday, October 03, 2015

Red, dead and dangerous to know: Ridley Scott's The Martian brings a planet to life

Apollo 13 / Ares 3

I once read a review of Ron Howard’s superb 1995 film, Apollo 13, which made an interesting point: everyone already knew how it ended – and yet you were absolutely on the edge of your seat throughout the recreation of the famous “Houston, we have a problem” mission. This, as the reviewer highlighted, was a remarkable achievement.

When I attended the South Australian premiere of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel, I also knew the ending. Nevertheless, I was as tense as a coiled spring waiting for abandoned astronaut Mark Watney to extricate himself from each fresh disaster, and filled with relief and jubilation as the credits began to roll. 

There is more in common between the two films than you might think. Both feature astronauts who are at risk of being lost in space, who survive by going back to basic science, with a lot of help from dedicated NASA staff and with the world watching.

The Martian represents a space program perhaps at the same stage as Apollo 13, but on a different planet. It’s still an experimental, rather than a mature, technology. Apollo 13 and Ares 3 are both the third landing missions in their series when they experience these potentially fatal setbacks: a warning not to be complacent about space travel.

In fact this is an extraordinary thing: that there have, as yet, been so few human deaths while actually in space. (There have been some fatalities while in spacecraft; the closest to a death in space is the three Soyuz 11 cosmonauts who died during descent). President Nixon’s unused speech, prepared in the event of the death of the Apollo 11 astronauts, is now famous; but it’s surely only a matter of time before some head of state has to use a similar one for a death where the body cannot be brought home.

It’s interesting to contemplate what effect this might have on public perceptions of space travel, and indeed  of space itself, once a human body has lost its soul in the outer darkness. The first death in space will change everything.

Planetary archaeology

For my archaeological eye, there was much that appealed. Watney travels to the Pathfinder lander (launched 1997) so that he can use its comms equipment to contact Earth. There is an obvious echo of Apollo 12’s visit to the earlier Surveyor III robotic lander in 1969. Astronauts Alan Bean and Peter Conrad landed their lunar descent module about 155 metres away from Surveyor III and removed the camera and a couple of bits to take back to Earth, a vital study in how human materials are affected by lunar conditions.

In emergencies, future space travellers may well have to cannibalise previous missions for spare parts and other resources.

What happens back on Earth is also illustrative: Ares Mission Director Vincent Kapoor has to locate people who worked on the Pathfinder program and boot up old software and hardware so that they can talk to Mark Watney. Knowing about space heritage has its uses after all.

The rendezvous with Pathfinder is a vivid cross-cultural encounter with an earlier phase of Martian technology. An analogy might be someone’s chainsaw breaking, forcing them to resort to a ground stone axe to cut wood.

Apollo 11 toss zone (hashed area), where unnecessary fittings 
and objects were thrown out of the ascent module in order to 
make it light  enough to take off.      Image courtesy of 
Beth Laura O'Leary
In order to leave, Watney has to jettison almost everything from his escape vehicle, the MAV 4. It’s a scene reminiscent of the Apollo ascents, where they similarly had to chuck any excess weight overboard. In both cases, astronauts just threw things outside from the hatches, the haste and chaos of it very at odds with the meticulous planning of other mission activities. Where the stuff landed is a sort of toss zone (as theorised by Lewis Binford), and may well be an archaeological signature of such human ascent sites – on the Moon, and now, mythically, on Mars.

Adapting The Martian

The film is very true to the book; what it leaves out you can live with, as it makes for more seamless viewing. It's expertly paced and never dull for a moment.

One thing that is very deftly done is some of the explanations of orbital mechanics. Experts explain to dunderheads in the film (and us in the audience) how something will work, using props. Such visual didactics could easily have missed the mark, coming across as forced and clunky, but they work both to explain things to a lay audience and add a little humour.

Thankfully, Ridley Scott eschews some of the book’s more laddish, hypermasculine moments, and does not interpose unnecessary romance into story. He also beefs up the role of Commander Lewis in a way that works well for her as a character and adds a bit more substance to a lead female role.

However, Kristen Wiig, as the plain-speaking Public Relations Manager Annie Montrose, is not given much to get her teeth into; the role is reduced and wooden compared to the book, and the same goes for satellite engineer Mindy Park. Replacing the Ares Mission director Venkat Kapoor, a practicing Hindu, with the more African-American half-Hindu half-Baptist Vincent Kapoor (played by English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) is frankly odd. Andy Weir’s efforts at being inclusive were slightly thwarted here. Most of the diversity has to be crammed into one character doing the work of two through bifurcating his name, his religion and his background. Unsatisfying, although those who have not read the book will notice nothing amiss.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

And of course the Martian vistas are all that you could want. The romance of red planet is writ large across the screen (all the better in 3D). I’ll commit heresy here by admitting that Mars is not my favourite planet. Nevertheless, the beauty and the terror of this alien landscape made me yearn for something greater than life on earth.

(And just quietly what a relief after the monumental cock-up that was Prometheus)

Updated 5 October 2015 to include Soyuz 11; thanks to @dsfportree for an interesting discussion.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The archaeology of not-quite-there: Pluto and the human gaze

why did you glance back?
why did you hesitate for that moment?
why did you bend your face
caught with the flame of the upper earth
above my face?

HD, Eurydice
In 2006, a spacecraft the size of an industrial fridge was launched on a remarkable mission: to zoom past the ninth planet in our solar system and show us its face for the first time. The New Horizons mission to Pluto caught the imagination of the world for a couple of epic weeks in July 2015. But as the spacecraft continues its journey beyond the formerly elusive and controversial planet and on to the Kuiper Belt, I’ve been thinking about what this means from an archaeological perspective.

This mission has turned Pluto from a fuzzy disc of reflected light into a place that we can see and read with our own signs and meanings. Already, there’s such a wide range of interpretations. Some are geological – craters, valleys, mountains. Others are geometric: rectangles, lines, circles, shapes, smoothness, spikiness. Then we have the zoomorphs: a whale’s tail, the head of a cartoon dog. Perhaps the most charming is that which sees the large icefields, now unofficially called Tombaugh Regio, as a heart.
Image from
We could also look at Pluto from a heritage/landscape perspective. Using the World Heritage Convention’s definitions of cultural landscapes, you could argue that that it is an associative landscape – with no actual physical human traces, it is still the repository of beliefs, dreams, visions and ideas. Some of these relate to its location so far from the light of the Sun. It’s said that midday on Pluto is as bright as Earth after sunset. It is a cold, dim planet, like a deep sea fish that lives and swims in darkness all its life. Since it was given the name of the ancient Roman god of the underworld, the International Astronomical Union has decreed that all place names on it will relate to this theme (which includes exploration). So already we have a set of metaphors and associations that shape the planet in our minds.

what was it that crossed my face
with the light from yours
and your glance?
what was it you saw in my face?
the light of your own face,
the fire of your own presence

HD, Eurydice

Our gaze creates Pluto as a place. I’ve written before about how the process of identifying distinct features and naming them creates a map of values. Assigning names to features on Pluto is a colonial process of mastery that draws the dwarf planet into a web of geopolitics. Despite the efforts of the International Astronomical Union to diversify the cultures represented in named things across the solar system, there is still a long way to go.

When telemetry showed that New Horizons had successfully completed its flyby, many in the mission control room waved American flags. Nationalism and national prestige are still among the main drivers of today’s space industry, despite the growth of private and crowd-funded space enterprises. As I watched the flag-waving, I thought that, for some people at least, the passage of a piece of space hardware has been the equivalent of planting a flag – as it was on the Moon – to stamp the outer solar system  as part of an American colonial landscape. And indeed, one of the ‘cultural artefacts’ on board the spacecraft was also a US flag, in stark contrast to the universal symbols on the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft.

Against this is the discourse of space exploration as a global human endeavour which everyone shares, the undeniable excitement generated in social and traditional media across nations and age groups, and NASA’s always brilliant open access, with all materials available to anyone with an internet connection. Possibly more people than ever before have waited with bated breath for the unique experience of gazing on the face of another planet for the first time, like a distant relative they’d longed to meet.

what had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
hyacinth colour
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck

HD, Eurydice

Pluto is a ‘natural’ object that existed for billennia (is that a word?) before there were sentient beings to observe it. But since its existence was first hypothesised in the 19th century, it has become a cultural artefact too. Like an archaeological excavation, the cameras of New Horizons excavated it from obscurity in the darkness of the night sky and brought it into the light. Space scientists and the public speculated about this strange new artefact: what was it made of? How had its surface markings been created? Its composition, history and appearance were compared to other planets and moons to gauge its character and hence the genesis of the landscapes captured by the LORRI camera. Deep time was being decoded from a surface of mountains, ice plains and craters: four dimensions being raised up from two.

The images, received as radio signals, converted and processed into pictures that we can view and understand, are a type of heritage or archaeological object in themselves. In one sense they are ephemeral, composed of numbers inside computers. In another sense, their endless duplication and proliferation gives them a digital resilience. Pluto, in our homes and at work, is a place we see and visit through a flat screen, almost as if we are inside our own spacecraft.

When we turn off the device, does Pluto still exist?

Pluto map by Snowfall-the-Cat

If you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace
if you had let me rest with the dead
I had forgot you and the past

HD, Eurydice

New Horizons only came within 12 000 km of the planet’s surface. No human trace has been left there as a footprint of the Anthropocene. For a fleeting moment, New Horizons was part of the Pluto-Charon system. Perhaps a few molecules of material are left behind in a tenuous wake within the orbit. Now that the spacecraft has passed, there is nothing to indicate that it was ever there, save for the images, words and memories of people closer to the Sun.

I’m thinking about this ‘nearly there-ness’ of human interaction. Many planets in the solar system that have only ever been ‘flown past’:  Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and until the Messenger spacecraft crashed into the surface in April 2015, Mercury too. Similarly, there are places on Earth, like the deep sea, that we know only from remote sensing, probes, and flyovers. There are also places we could visit, but haven’t yet, like World Heritage sites. We feel it’s important that they exist, even if we haven’t had any personal encounter with them, and many people feel strongly about protecting such places.

This is what characterises space archaeology too, at least at the present time. It’s all an archaeology of ‘not-quite-there’, where we use historical and proxy data in order to make hypotheses about what lies beyond our reach in space.

Can there be an archaeology of the ‘not-quite-there’? How do you analyse something you can’t touch? It doesn’t bother planetary scientists: few of them will ever have anything other than data acquired from remote sensing. But as Matt Edgeworth has pointed out, archaeology is made of human dimensions. We dig using our bodies: the artefacts we scrutinise are made to fit in our hands, accommodate similar-sized human and animal bodies. This is partially why the pyramids, and other such wonders of the ancient world, seem so extraordinary and even, to some, alien. Their scale seems to defy the human capacity. In the modern industrial world, there are many such structures: bridges, buildings, mines, rockets, giant offshore gas rigs. Of these objects, Edgeworth (2010:140) notes that 'The sheer such that it is impossible to fully grasp either in a visual or tactile sense - to see all of it at once or to touch more than a tiny part of it'.
John Schofield, an archaeologist, and David Jenkins, a physicist, have written about the vast differences in scale between sub-atomic particles and the deep galaxy maps that almost show the beginnings of time, all coalesced around the CERN research facility on the border of France and Switzerland. This massive complex of buildings and installations, where the highest of high science takes place (such as the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson in 2012) also contains dilapidated chairs and shabby rooms, forgotten corners where an archaeologist finds the empty space redolent of human presence.
Image courtesy of NASA

In a recent conference paper, I mused about the solar-system-scale Matrioshka Brain and how humans might interact with it as ‘natural-born cyborgs’. Something incomprehensibly large and complex, whether ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’, can still be held in our minds when it is what is called transparent technology: we use it intuitively, without thinking, as an extension of ourselves. This is pretty much what smart phones and other devices are for us now. We're not aware of the vast network of infrastructure that supports them, from satellites to the tiny chips inside - we use them as an augmentation of our bodies.
you who have your own light
who are to yourself a presence
who need no presence
HD, Eurydice
So what are we to make of this? At the end of this disquisition, I'm left with the feeling that we're becoming very good at bridging these differences of scale. Spacecraft like New Horizons give us dimensions of both time and space to get our heads around. They present the act of focusing, through the feeble jellies of our eyes, as a temporal act. We draw closer and closer to the planet's surface, like the process of focussing a microscope objective, and when the object precipitates into our field of view, we assess, name, categorise, analyse - and dream. Pluto becomes part of our personal solar system, the full extension of our gaze, and we are one step closer to becoming truly cosmic.
And then we stumble through and past, like Orpheus, and turn our gaze elsewhere.
Note: the full text of HD's extraordinary work Eurydice can be found here.
you who
who are to yo

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

'The sweet poison of the false infinite': C.S. Lewis on the ethics of colonising outer space

In 1944, Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis published the second book of a trilogy about space. Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) is a lyrical evocation of the planet Venus, before the Mariner fly-by of 1962 revealed it to be a lifeless world. It's also a moral tale of the battle between dark and light, infused with Lewis' Christian theology. Through Professor Weston (dark) and Ransom (light), Lewis presents two different experiences and ideologies about humanity's place in space.

I find myself returning again and again to the first two novels in this trilogy. Informed by his deep knowledge of Medieval worldviews, Lewis' vision of space is profound and poetic. I've quoted him more than once in academic papers (here for example), and frequently discover new insights in sentences read a thousand times before, depending on where my own thoughts are tending at the time.

Source: Twisty Turny Lanes

In the passage below, Lewis' distaste for the nascent genre of science fiction, and for the amateur societies who were the vanguards of space before the end of the war brought the potential of the V2 rocket to the world's attention, is very evident. (Never mind that he was now writing science fiction himself). However, the way he captures the tension between what we might now call an ecological position, and an colonialist one, prefigures very contemporary debates. You are left in no doubt which side he supports.

Professor Weston....was a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of 'scientifiction', in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs strive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God's quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome. This for a start. But beyond this planet lies the sweet poison of the false infinite - the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and for ever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our own species - a dream begotten by the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality, fondled in secret by thousands of ignorant men and hundreds who are not ignorant. The destruction or enslavement of other species in the universe, if such there are, is to these minds a welcome corollary.

Even in the last few weeks, I've come across debates about humanity's right to propagate indefinitely, in whatever form that might be. Space narratives still cleave to a naive colonialism abandoned (mostly) everywhere else in the modern world. 

But for Lewis, we are seduced by the 'sweet poison of the false infinite'. Infinity, he implies, is deceptive. The concept of a virtually endless universe is not an invitation to expand, in our own messy organic big bang, to fill all available niches; nor is it a palliative for the fear of death. 

Perhaps that is the crux of it. We must solve infinity within ourselves before we can drink the 'sweet poison' and survive.

Lewis, C.S. 1944 [1975] Perelandra. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, p 81

Friday, August 21, 2015

Cold War material culture: the script of Ice Station Zebra

A random thought today sent me in search of the screenplay of the 1968 classic film Ice Station Zebra. Years ago it did not exist on the internet, and I couldn't find it now either, not even on the American Film Scripts Online database - but I did come across this image of the actual script on a bookseller's website.

Image courtesy of Royal Books

The script is described thus:

Revised draft script for the 1968 film. Copy belonging to an uncredited crew member, with notations in holograph pencil on the versos of pages throughout, mostly numeric notations, with a few pages noting on-the-set supplies, and some personal notations. 
Goldenrod studio wrappers, rubber-stamped copy No. 170, dated June 14, 1967, with credits for director Sturges, producer Martin Ransohoff, and writer Douglas Heyes. 189 leaves, with last leaf of text numbered 203. Mimeograph, dated variously between 4/28//67 and 6/30/67, with blue and gray revision pages throughout, dated variously between 6/27/67 and 7/3/67. Pages Very Good plus, wrapper Near Fine, bound with two gold brads.

Just incidentally, the script will set you back $1750.00 USD.  I was momentarily tempted, I have to confess.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

'Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap': Apollo 11 and the poetry of longing and loss

As you know I love a bit of space poetry, and if it happens to be Australian, well, all the better. This wonderful poem, full of gentle rhyme and wistful metaphor, really resonates with me because it describes so well my own experience of the Apollo moon landing in 1965, where I similarly huddled, with an entire rural primary school of students, into the teacher's residence to watch the first steps on a black and white television.

It's really a poem, though, of love and loss. I could go on with my amateur analysis, but I won't: please read it for yourself and enjoy the subtle twists of the poet's art. This is by Stephen Edgar, and it won the 2005 Peter Porter Poetry Prize.

(Note on attribution: I was alerted to this poem by the Australian Book Review newsletter. Here it is on the original website).

Photograph by Victor Rogus

Man on the moon
Hardly a feature in the evening sky
As yet  near the horizon the cold glow
Of rose and mauve which, as you look on high,
Deepens to Giotto’s dream of indigo.
Hardly a star as yet. And then that frail
Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap
Gouged by a nail, or the paring of a nail:
Slender enough repository of hope.
There was no lack of hope when thirty-five
Full years ago they sent up the Apollo 
Two thirds of all the years I’ve been alive.
They let us out of school, so we could follow
The broadcast of that memorable scene,
Crouching in Mr Langshaw’s tiny flat,
The whole class huddled round the TV screen.
There’s not much chance, then, of forgetting that.
And for the first time ever I think now,
As though it were a memory, that you
Were in the world then and alive, and how
Down time’s long labyrinthine avenue
Eventually you’d bring yourself to me,
With no excessive haste and none to soon 
As memorable in my history
As that small step for man onto the moon.
How pitiful and inveterate the way
We view the paths by which our lives descended
From the far past down to the present day
And fancy those contingencies intended,
A secret destiny planned in advance
Where what is done is as it must be done
For us alone. When really it’s all chance
And the special one might have been anyone.
The paths that I imagined to have come
Together and for good have simply crossed
And carried on. And the delirium
We found is cold and sober now and lost.
The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back,
A radiotelescope propped to receive
The signals of the circling zodiac.
I send my thoughts up, wishing to believe
That they might strike the moon and be transferred
To where you are and find or join your own.
Don’t smile. I know the notion is absurd,
And everything I think, I think alone.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

How would lunar mining affect the cultural significance of the Moon?

This is an excerpt from my (pre-revision) forthcoming publication Managing cultural heritage values in lunar mining? What are the issues?
Consultation with stakeholders is part of both assessing the social significance of cultural heritage and obtaining a Social Licence to Operate (SLO). Despite the best intentions, however, gaining free, prior and informed consent is frequently overlooked (Bice 2014). How could this be achieved for an entire celestial body, and with meaningful consultation with the ‘local’ community of Earth’s seven billion people? While the UN offers obvious mechanisms through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS), UNESCO and the  advisory organisation the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), private commercial interests may prefer to undertake their own community engagement.
Lunar surface mining. Image courtesy of NASA
How will people feel if they look at the Moon in the night sky, and know that is being mined underneath their eyes? While diverse publics have been tolerant of scientific missions, commercial ventures may be received very differently. Mining and exploration will have impacts on the lunar environment much greater than the low level created by robotic and scientific missions to date.
While it is probably broadly true to say “humanity as a whole has embraced the historic events and objects associated with space research as part of our jointly held heritage” (Walsh 2012:234), this obscures deeply entrenched divisions between colonial/spacefaring nations and colonised/'developing' nations (Gorman 2005a, Gorman 2009b, Redfield 2005). These divisions have been very evident in the politics around the formation of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the Moon Agreement even more so, and contribute to the impasse that resource utilisation on the Moon is currently facing (Hoffstadt 1994).
The reaction of, say, an Australian to a US-based profit-making mine in which they have no say or share could easily be negative. A First Nations Australian may have another layer of reaction, based on their experience of alienation from country and destruction of cultural heritage arising from terrestrial resource exploitation. Moreover, an assault on the integrity of a celestial body which belongs to what is commonly called the ‘Dreaming’ – a suite of cultural knowledge in which the past is simultaneously entwined with the creation of law, identity and land in the present – may be a matter of some concern. Aboriginal people are by no means the only First Nation to have such a relationship with the Moon.
Moon Dreaming, by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, 2007
Ronnie Tjampitjinapa is a Pintupi man from the Western Desert  He was a founding member of the Papunya Tula Artists group. .
Image courtesy of Aboriginal Art Directory
What is considered to be for ‘the benefit and in the interests of all countries’ (OST Article 1, see also Moon Agreement Article 4) depends very much on how regulation unfolds in this next critical period. Again a parallel with terrestrial mining industry may be instructive. Management strategies in SLO frameworks include the concept of ‘offsets’: compensating for impacts at one location through activities at another, either directly or indirectly. A direct offset might be setting aside a protected area of land to compensate for the loss of that impacted by mining. Increasing the value of a heritage place could be considered a direct offset – for example, committing resources to conserving Tranquility Base to compensate for ‘sacrificing’ a Lunar Orbiter impact site. Indirect offsets may include funding research or education around the environmental/heritage resource that will lead to benefits for it. Note though, that offsets are determined during the planning phase, not in retrospect ie they do not compensate for damage already caused.
Lunar mining will take place in an environment where social media are a major part of public engagement with space. Space agencies, private companies, astronauts, missions, and rovers have their own Twitter accounts and there is an expectation of public involvement. Crowd-funded space missions such as Lunar Mission One, a probe designed to drill a deep core in polar regions, is possibly the vanguard of more such projects. The investors in off-world mining companies are likely to be the same people who buy shares in terrestrial mining. The moon’s seeming remoteness will not protect industrial operations from the scrutiny of the public.
Bice, Sarah 2014 What Gives You a Social Licence? An Exploration of the Social Licence to Operate in the Australian Mining Industry. Resources 3:62-80
Gorman, A.C. 2009b Beyond the Space Race: the significance of space sites in a new global context. In Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holtorf (eds) Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now, pp 161-180 Bern: Peter Lang
Gorman, A.C. 2005a The cultural landscape of interplanetary space. Journal of Social Archaeology 5(1):85-10
Hoffstadt, Brian 1994 Moving the heavens: lunar mining and the ‘common heritage of mankind’ in the Moon Treaty. UCLA Law Review 42:575-621
Redfield, P. 2005. Space in the Tropics. From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Walsh, Justin 2012 Protection of humanitys cultural and historic heritage in space. Space Policy 28:234-243

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The day Pluto came to breakfast: Venetia Burney and a life in mathematics

The girl who named Pluto became a mathematician.

Pluto comes to breakfast

Report from the Springfield Union, USA, March 14, 1930.
Image courtesy of Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers

One morning, when Venetia Burney was 11 years old, the news that a ninth planet had been discovered was reported in the Times. In her own words:

I think it was on March the 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I, after a short pause, said, "Why not call it Pluto?" I did know, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children's books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn't been used.
This was no ordinary grandfather. Falconer Madan was the retired head librarian of the Bodleian in Oxford, and his brother Henry had named the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. The planets were part of Venetia's early life on Earth. 

The planetary walk

At her primary school, Venetia recalled in 2006,
we used to play games in the university park, putting - I think they were lumps of clay - at the right distance from each other to represent the distances of the planets from the Sun.
The 'games' were in fact a teaching exercise devised by Miss K. Claxton.
Apparently it all began with a school 'Nature Walk,' which one day turned itself into a 'Planet Walk.' In those days Form II still used The Sciences by E.S. Holden, and we had reached the section on the relative sizes and distances of the planets.
Leaving the sun, represented by a circle two feet in diameter on the classroom blackboard, we set out from school carefully carrying our planets! After 41 paces we placed Mercury (the size of a canary seed) on an Oxford pavement. After 77 paces Venus, represented by a small pea, was laid down. The Earth (a pea), Mars (a small bead), Jupiter (an orange), Saturn (a golf ball) were duly placed—the last after zealous counting of 1,019 paces. Then we let our imaginations finish the walk, for it seemed best to turn back while our enthusiasm and our legs still remained fresh!
The follow-up to this came with the reading of The Age of Fable, when the children became more intimate with the characters of the Greek gods and goddesses and the nature of their kingdoms. And then one morning, March 14th, 1930, we read in the daily papers of the discovery of a new planet, a 'dark' one.
The Age of Fable (1855), by Thomas Bulfinch, recounts the story of Pluto's abduction of Proserpine, and her mother Ceres' search to find her in the underworld - not unlike Percival Lowell's search for the mysterious Planet X in the outer darkness of the solar system. However the silence, the lapping waters, the murky atmosphere, the deep pits and the darkness of the realms of the dead are most vividly described in Bulfinch's retelling of Aeneas's descent under the Earth. Clearly this made a great impression on Venetia.
Falconer Madan later acknowledged the role Miss Claxton's teaching had played in Venetia's thought process. He wrote to her in June 1930 to say that Venetia's:
acquaintance with some of the old legends of Greek and Roman deities and heroes, and that 'nature walk' in the University Parks, by which she was taught the relative spaces between the Planets and the Sun, and the gloom of distance, enabled her to grasp at once the special elements of the situation, and to be the first to make a suggestion so reasonable as to be accepted (it appears) by the whole world of Science.

The chain of chance

Falconer Madan pondered his granddaughter's suggestion, and dropped a note to his friend Professor Herbert Hall Turner, a Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. Professor Turner then sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory (misspelling Venetia's name), requesting consideration of Pluto as the name for such a 'dark, gloomy planet'.

From the Lowell Observatory Archives

As it turns out, Venetia wasn't the only person who thought of Pluto. After all, the major planets had all received the names of Greek and Roman gods, and there were only so many to go around.  However, her connections to astronomy through her grandfather's friendship with Professor Turner, and her great-uncle's previous efforts in planetary nomenclature, made her story the right one for the time. On May 1 1930, the name became official.

A life in science

After her stellar intervention in planetary science, Venetia attended a secondary school (most likely as a boarder) which had a heavy focus on mathematics and science. She went on to study mathematics at Newnham College at Cambridge University. Newnham, established in 1871 to give women an opportunity to attend university, had a proud tradition in mathematics. One of its founders was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who in 1870 topped the entire university in maths (and later became a famous suffragist). However, women could not officially receive degrees until 1948, so Venetia would have received a discreet certificate in the mail, her name, like nearly 1000 other women, not even appearing in the graduation lists.
During the Second World War she put her mathematical skills to a more mundane use by training as a chartered accountant. She married Maxwell Phair, a classics teacher, in 1947; and perhaps influenced by him, and memories of Miss Claxton's creative approach to learning, she became a teacher herself in the 1950s. Naturally, she taught new generations in her own areas of expertise.

The legacy of a legend

When the New Horizons mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, Venetia was invited, but at the age of 88 did not feel up to the transatlantic journey. She had never made a big deal out of her role in Pluto's birth as the newest member of the solar system, but appreciated the recognition:
I have my kind invitation from NASA, and I treasure that too. I shall put it on the mantelpiece, I think, conspicuously, to look at. And I just wish everybody concerned with the launch that the whole thing will be the success that they hope.

Venetia Burney never saw Pluto through a telescope; her only glimpse of it was a dim photograph. But now, an instrument named after her is hurtling through space towards the ninth planet. Fittingly, for someone who devoted their life to science education, it is a student experiment: the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter.

And over the months to come, the topographical and geological features of our least known planetary neighbour will be given names on the theme of the underworld and exploration, as determined by a young girl on a morning in the world long ago.