And this week, we headed back into outer space with the story behind the naming of the planet Pluto: as we tweeted on Friday, the name Pluto was the suggestion of Venetia Burney, 11-year-old granddaughter of noted Oxford University librarian Falconer Madan.
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by the American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, but the existence of a possible “Planet X” on the very fringes of the Solar System had been the brainchild of Percival Lowell, founder of the renowned Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
When the news broke of Tombaugh’s discovery on 14 March 1930, Venetia suggested over a quiet family breakfast in Oxford that the new planet should be named Pluto. Her own personal interest in mythology plus her family’s longstanding interest in astronomy (her great-uncle, Henry Madan, had named the moons of Mars in 1878) both served her well: Pluto was the god of the underworld in classical mythology, who lived in perpetual darkness away from the Sun, and was able to change his shape to evade detection. Seemingly, his was the perfect name for a planet of such remoteness, and a planet that had hitherto proved so difficult to spot.
Burney’s grandfather immediately sent a note suggesting that the name be considered to Oxford’s professor of astronomy, Herbert Hall Turner, who had been attending an astronomical conference in London discussing Tombaugh’s discovery.
“I think PLUTO is excellent!!” he reportedly wrote back, and forwarded the idea on to his colleagues in Flagstaff via telegram:
Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.
The note ended up in the hands of Clyde Tombaugh himself, who liked not only the mythological connotations of the name, but also the fact that its first two letters, PL, were Percival Lowell’s initials. Two months later Vesto Slipher, the director of Lowell Observatory, announced to the name to the world.
Venetia Burney went on to become an accountant and later a schoolteacher, and died in 2009 at the age of 90—just three years after Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Of the decision to downgrade it, she commented at the time, “At my age, I’ve been largely indifferent to [the decision], though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”