The Naming of Planet Pluto by Venetia Burney

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"The Naming of Planet Pluto by Venetia Burney"
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In a sense, the planet Pluto had a short life, being discovered in 1930 but "demoted" to the status of "dwarf planet" in 2006. That life was exceeded at both ends by that of Venetia Phair (ne Burney) who had a special claim to fame in respect of the planet.

Venetia was a young British girl, aged 11 in 1930, who had lost her father at a young age and was living with her mother and brother at the home of her grandparents in Oxford. On 14th March, as the family was at breakfast, Venetia's grandfather read from the Times newspaper the announcement that Clyde Tombaugh, a young astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, had identified a ninth planet, lying beyond Neptune. The report stated that a name had not yet been decided upon.

Venetia piped up with, "Why not call it Pluto?" Her thinking was that, for such a dark and distant planet, the name of the Roman god of the underworld would be suitable. She knew her Greek and Roman mythology from school, and was also interested in astronomy.

Venetia's grandfather was Falconer Madan, now retired from being the chief librarian of the Bodleian library of Oxford University, a man who was still well-respected in academic circles and who had contacts with some of the most distinguished scholars of the day. One of these was Herbert Hall Turner, the Professor of Astronomy. Falconer Madan wrote a letter to Professor Turner, in which he spoke about his granddaughter's suggested name.

On the day that Professor Turner received the letter, he travelled to London to attend a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, of which he was a past president. From London he sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory, which said, "Naming new planet, please consider Pluto, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet."

The name Pluto was considered alongside several other names (including Cronus, Minerva and Zeus), but a reason for its choice was one that had never crossed young Venetia's mind, namely that the first two letters, PL, which would be used as an abbreviation alongside NE, UR, JU, etc, on star maps, were also the initials of Percival Lowell, the founder of the Lowell Observatory. The coincidence was too good to overlook.

For her suggestion, Venetia received a congratulatory postcard from the president of the Royal Astronomical Society and a five-pound note from her grandfather. Five pounds in 1930 was a very nice sum for a young girl to receive, and Venetia was extremely happy with her reward.

In later life, Venetia became a chartered accountant and a teacher, but continued to be interested in astronomy, albeit at an amateur level. An asteroid was named in her honor in 2006, as was one of the instruments on board the probe that is due to reach Pluto in 2015.

One annoyance that she had to bear for most of her life was the belief in some quarters that a young girl would not have had enough knowledge to name a planet after a Roman god. She was more likely to have liked the name of the dog in the Disney cartoons and suggested the name for that reason, surely? However, there is clear evidence that the name of the planet came first and that of the dog came second.

Venetia Phair (she married in 1947) died on 30th April 2009, at the age of 90. However, on her 89th birthday, which was celebrated at the Herstmonceux Observatory in Sussex, she was able to look through a telescope and see Pluto herself for the first time, 77 years after she had given the planet its name.

More about this author: John Welford

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