When Did Koreans First Hear of Pluto?

Donga Ilbo March 20 1930

March 20, 1930 edition of Dong-A Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보) (Source).

One of my other interests besides Classical Chinese is astronomy. Today, with New Horizons, the first probe ever to explore Pluto, having flown by the dwarf planet, I checked somewhat frequently on various websites for news about the spacecraft. As I read for the umpteenth time about the history of Pluto’s discovery, I started to wonder: when did Koreans first hear of the discovery? In America, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh had found the celestial object on February 18, 1930. Its discovery was announced later on March 13. The name “Pluto” was officially adopted on March 24. To find out more about Koreans’ first reception of the discovery, I checked on Naver’s archive of old newspapers. The earliest reference I could find was from an article in the March 20 edition of Dong-A Ilbo, not too long after its first announcement. Here are a few sentences from the article:

Discovery of a New Planet Belonging to the Solar System:
From Lowell Observatory in America

(Telegraphed from Cambridge) According to the Harvard University Astronomical Research Center’s announcement, Percival’s Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona State is said to have discovered what they believe is a new, fifteenth celestial object that belongs to the solar system as the ninth planet near Neptune. This new planet cannot be seen without the use of the most advanced telescope in the world …

Lowell Observatory is named after Percival Lowell, who passed away in 1916. He predicted the position and existence of a new planet. This was the result of research long speculated regarding the gravitational tugs on Neptune by the new planet.* The discovery of Neptune also was based on similar observations.

This discovery of the ninth planet in the solar system is the actualization of predictions made 30 years ago by the deceased Professor Percival Lowell, who designated it as “Planet X” or “Transneptunian.” This discovery, as it is the culmination of several decades of scientific research, is the most important, greatest discovery since the discovery of Neptune in 1864 …

So there you have it. No later than March 20, 1930. (There are other Korean newspapers from that time period, but they are not available on Naver.)

As for the Korean name for Pluto, it is Myeongwangseong (冥王星, 명왕성), literally meaning the “planet of the king of darkness.” This is a liberal translation of “Pluto,” who in Greek mythology is the god of the underworld. This Chinese character translation was first coined by Japanese astronomer Nijiri Hoei (野尻 抱影, 1885-1977) later that year. His nomenclature was adopted by the Kyoto Astronomical Observatory and soon spread to China and later to Korea.

* The “Planet X” hypothesis has been proven false since then. With Voyager 2’s new measurements of the masses of Uranus and Neptune in 1989, the necessity of a large hypothetical planet beyond the two ice giants was eliminated. With the discovery of thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belt, which encompasses the region just outside Neptune, Pluto was demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet” in 2006.


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