R.I.P.: the girl who named Pluto

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Three years ago I wrote a column about someone I was astonished I’d never heard of until that week: Venetia Phair (née Burney), at the time an 87-year-old retired schoolteacher in Epsom, England.

At the age of 11 Venetia suggested the name Pluto for what was then (and for many decades after) considered the ninth and outermost planet of the solar system. (In 2006 it was officially downgraded to a “dwarf planet.”)

Venetia died on April 30 at the age of 90. In her honour, here’s her story again, drawn from a January 2006 interview with Edward Goldstein of NASA Public Affairs, in honor of the then-impending launch of the New Horizons spacecraft, now en route to a 2015 fly-past of Pluto.

“I think it was on March 14, 1930, and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather,” Venetia said. “And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news (of the discovery of Pluto) and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I after a short pause, said, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’”

Venetia explained that she was familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children’s books and also knew the names of the other planets. “I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn’t been used. And there it was.”

Of course, lots of children say clever things over the breakfast table, but their bon mots don’t usually make it onto a map of the heavens. That’s because most children don’t have as their grandfather Falconer Madan, a retired librarian of Oxford University’s famous Bodleian Library. Madan, impressed by Venetia’s suggestion, dropped by the house of Herbert Hall Turner, a friend of his and a professor of astronomy at Oxford.

Ironically, Turner wasn’t home: he was at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, where everyone was wondering what the new planet would be called. When Turner finally heard the suggestion from Madan, he thought it such an excellent name that he sent a telegram to astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the planet had been discovered. On May 1, 1930, the name Pluto was formally adopted.

Tombaugh and his colleagues apparently liked the name not only because it was one of the few notable names from classical mythology that had yet to be used but also because the first two letters were the initials of the late Percival Lowell—after whom the Lowell Observatory was named, and who, along with William Pickering, had predicted the existence of a planet outside Neptune’s orbit, but never saw it.

Madan awarded Venetia a five-pound note. “As a grandfather, he liked to have an excuse for generosity,” Venetia told the BBC. She also made sure the BBC knew that Disney’s cartoon dog named Pluto had nothing to do with her suggestion: “People were repeatedly saying: ‘Ah, she named it after Pluto the dog’. It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way round. So, one is vindicated.”

The launch of the New Horizons mission probably got Venetia more publicity than she received all those years ago. “I think the newspapers were mostly occupied by the exploits of the woman pilot Amy Johnson (the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia) at the time,” she told NASA. “My grandfather collected any information there was through a press agency and put it into two scrapbooks that I have, which I treasure.”

In addition to the long-spent five-pound note from her grandfather, Venetia has received a badge from Johns Hopkins University and had an asteroid and a scientific instrument named after her. But she’s never seen the planet she named, although she has visited the Lowell Observatory and saw the telescope through which Tombaugh first saw Pluto.

And if you’ve never heard of Venetia Phair yourself until now, well, even people who knew her personally seldom knew the full story.

As she told NASA, “On the whole, it doesn’t arise in conversation, and you don’t just go around telling people that you named Pluto.”

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2009/05/rip-the-girl-who-named-pluto/

7 comments

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  1. Memorization is actually not that important for learning. Before the robotic space missions, we knew very little about the individual planets, so it was natural to focus on their names and their order from the Sun. But the same way we don’t insist on keeping the number of Jupiter’s moons at four because kids cannot memorize 63, there is no reason to artificially keep the number of planets low so kids can memorize them. Today, with all the knowledge we have about the solar system, it is more important for kids to know what a terrestrial planet is, what a gas giant is, what a dwarf planet is; cite the main characteristics for each category, and name one or two examples for each. There is no scientific justification for keeping the number of planets low simply for the purpose of memorization.

    • E.A.C. on December 7, 2009 at 7:40 pm
    • Reply

    IAU most probably based their decision to gain publicity, a move based more on grabbing attention than actual desire for correct classification.

    And it probably also to make sure that they limit the amount of planets.

    It’s hard enough that USA children have to learn their country’s 50 states, Japanese children have to learn their country’s 47 prefectures, and so on. To add more planets means that a lot more children will have to remember more, especially if their education system demand that they remember all of the planets in such short time (a sure way to have a lot failed tests).

    I personally think a lot of people don’t mind adding more planets, if they don’t have to remember all of the planets in such a short time.

    Nevertheless, if the IAU want to stick with their decision, they have to come up with a better definition to make Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and so on as non planets. I don’t mind though if we are only left with Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. I mean Mercury and Mars definetly need another review.

    1. I think we should just say Earth is the only planet, and call the other Giant Spaceballs. But so far, I can’t get anyone else to agree.

  2. Bill,

    Saw your comment after I’d made my own comment about mnemonics. That’s the same one I remember. I think I learned it from Robert A. Heinlein’s “Have Space Suit, Will Travel.”

  3. I certainly hope they’re successful in regaining Pluto’s planetary status. Without it, all the mnemonics I learned as a kid to remember the names of the planets in order are screwed up!

  4. It should be noted that the IAU’s controversial demotion of Pluto is very likely not the last word on the subject and in fact represents only one interpretation in an ongoing debate. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet.

  5. I’m glad to hear that it was named after the god and not the dog. I always thought the dog got named after the planet had been named, but never was sure. Too lazy to dig around and find out for sure about this piece of trivia, I guess.

    For many of us, Pluto will remain the ninth planet, regardless the decisions of the IAU. Logically, the demotion makes sense, but in our hearts Pluto lives on. Besides, I need it there for the mnemonic I’ve used since a kid for naming the planets in order: Mother Very Thoughtfully Made A Jelly Sandwich Under No Protest. 😀

    May she rest in peace.

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