What Planet is This?

29 Jul 2005

Venetia Burney and Pluto

On 14th March 1930, eleven year old Venetia Burney was sitting down to breakfast at home in Oxford. It was a cold and cloudy day, with occasional drizzle, and her grandfather, Falconer Madan of the Bodleian Library, was reading The Times at the table. He eventually got to the following article, and read it out to his granddaughter:


(From our correspondent)
NEW YORK, March 13

Professor Harlow Shapley, Director of
the Harvard Observatory, announced to-
day that the Lowell Observatory at Flag-
staff, Arizona, had discovered a ninth
major planet. The planet, which has
not yet been named, is beyond Neptune.
It is probably larger than the Earth, but
smaller than Uranus.

The discovery confirms the belief of
the late Dr. Percival Lowell that such a
planet existed and was in fact the result
of a systematic search of several years in
support of Dr. Lowell's belief. Professor
Shapley calls the discovery the most
important since the discovery of Neptune
in 1846.

The Times, Friday, 14th March 1930; p.14.

Not long before, young Venetia had been on a nature walk with her school where they'd laid out the planets to scale, and even Saturn had been 1,019 paces away, so she was well aware that it was dark past Neptune. She'd also been reading The Age of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch, a popular introduction to mythology, and knew that the planets were all named after mythological figures. With the mention, too, of Percival Lowell in the article, and thinking about all these things, she quietly told her grandfather, "I think Pluto would be a good name for it". Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld, and his name starts with Lowell's initials.

Her grandfather agreed that it would be a good name. His brother, Henry Madan, had suggested the names Phobos and Deimos for the satellites of Mars in 1878. He decided that he ought to contact Herbert H. Turner, a former astronomer royal, about the suggestion, and the honoured Turner sent a telegram about it to Lowell Observatory on the 15th March.

The idea took hold, and on 1st May 1930, Vesto Slipher, the director of the Lowell Observatory, announced the official adoption of the name Pluto for the ninth planet so far discovered. Venetia grew up to become a teacher, and married a mathematician called Maxwell Phair. She currently lives in Epsom, and was 85 last year. She was even written to recently by some schoolchildren, who received a nice reply from her.

Today, it was announced that a Trans-Neptunian object provisionally called either 2003 EL61 or K40506A has been found, discovered back in 2003 and appearing on plates back as far as 1955. The BBC stated that it "may be larger than Pluto", but just as the Times noted upon Pluto's discovery that it's "probably larger than the Earth", this appears to have been an overestimate, and now it's said that the new object is probably about 70% of the diameter of Pluto. That may still make it the largest Kuiper Belt object yet discovered, and it may only be a matter of time before a Trans-Neptunian object larger than Pluto is discovered.

When it is discovered, let's hope somebody does as good a job as Venetia at naming it!

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Venetia Burney and Pluto", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/venetia


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