The girl was Venetia Burney of Oxford, England. Venetia’s great uncle, Science Master of Eton Henry Madan, in 1877 suggested the name for the two dwarf moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos (fear/panic and dread/terror). This was referencing the fact that Deimos and Phobos were twin brothers, the children of the god Ares (Mars in Roman mythology), specifically being the offspring of Ares and Aphrodite.
Because an 11 year old girl suggested the name Pluto and the Disney dog, Pluto, first appeared around the same time, it has given rise to the myth that Venetia came up with the name after the cartoon dog. The fact of the matter is that, while the dog did appear in 1930, the same year Venetia suggested the name Pluto, his original name was “Rover”. He didn’t get the name “Pluto” until Moose Hunt, in April of 1931, about a year after the planet was named.
So how did she really come up with the name Pluto?
As people so often did in that day and age, and not so much now, Venetia and her family were gathered around the table eating breakfast on March 14, 1930. Venetia and her mother were living at Venetia’s grandfather’s house in North Oxford as her father, Reverend Charles Fox Burney, Professor of Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, had died when she was six years old.
While eating breakfast, the topic at hand was the discovery of a new planet, which has since been demoted to a dwarf planet. Her grandfather, Falconer Madan, retired head Librarian of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, read to her the following article from The London Times published that day (from page 14):
NEW PLANET: DISCOVERY BY LOWELL OBSERVATORY
Professor Harlow Shapley, Director of the Harvard Observatory, announced today 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.
Of course, they got the size of Pluto wildly off in the above, but the fact that the planet had not been named yet brought the topic of discussion at the table around to what it should be called.
Venetia was well familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, and further had recently been acquainted with the planets and their relative distances from the Sun. After thinking about it for a minute, Venetia stated she said, “I think Pluto would be a good name for it.” Pluto is the god of the underworld, who could make himself invisible and generally dwelt in a place that sunlight doesn’t reach; so it seemed a fitting name for a dark, remote planet.
Her grandfather thought it was such a great name, that he immediately went and suggested it to a friend of his, Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford, who was attending a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in London at the time. There was already a heated debate in Flagstaff and at the RAS meeting over what to call the new planet, but nobody involved had thought of Pluto.
Turner wrote back to Madan, in response to Madan telling him of Venetia’s suggestion, “I think PLUTO excellent!! We did not manage to think of anything so good at the RAS yesterday. The only at all meritorious suggestion was Kronos, but that won’t do alongside Saturn.” (Note: The Greek equivalent of Saturn is Kronos.)
Turner then sent a telegram to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff stating,
Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.
At the time at the Lowell Observatory, the leading candidates were Minerva, Zeus, Atlas, and Persephone. When they heard Pluto, many loved it as it not only was fitting from a mythological standpoint, but Pluto also started with PL, which would be in homage to Percival Lowell, who as mentioned in the above Times piece played an integral role in the of search for “Planet X”, the predicted ninth planet of the solar system based on irregularities in the orbit of Uranus that could not wholly be accounted for by Neptune. Lowell died 14 years before Pluto would be discovered. (Note: Their estimates of the mass of Neptune were incorrect. Planet X did not actually exist, at least as far as Lowell defined it.)
When it finally came to a vote as to what to officially name the newly discovered planet, it was unanimous- Pluto.
It should be noted that while Venetia is often credited as being very clever in her choice of Pluto, in terms of having thought about subtle connections between the unnamed planet and the god of the underworld, she doesn’t remember giving it that much thought, “Whether I thought about a dark, gloomy Hades, I’m not sure,” she stated in an interview in 2006. Although, she also noted, “I can still visualize the table and the room, but I can remember very little about the conversation.”
So she may have simply forgotten how she came up with the name, as her grandfather shortly after the event, presumably with a slightly more accurate account given it was fresh in his mind, certainly credited her with giving it a fair amount of rational thought. So much so that he wrote a “Thank You” letter to her teacher, K.M. Claxton, shortly after the name was chosen,
I really believe that had Venetia been under a less capable and enlightened teacher than yourself, the suggestion of Pluto would not have occurred to her, or, if made, would have been just a vague guess. As it is, her acquaintance with some of the old legends of Greek and Roman deities and heroes, and that ‘nature walk’ in the University Parks, by which she was taught the relative spaces between the Planets and the Sun, and the gloom of distance, enabled her to grasp at once the special elements of the situation, and to be the first to make a suggestion so reasonable as to be accepted (it appears) by the whole world of Science.
(The “nature walk” he was referencing was where they’d take the students outside and go for a walk while teaching them. In this particular walk he is referencing, Venetia and her fellow students played a game in the park, “putting – I think they were lumps of clay – at the right distance from each other to represent the distances of the planets from the Sun.”)
Whether she actually thought in such depth about the name or not, the scientists who ultimately did pick the name did think about those things when naming the planet.
So finally, on May 1st, 1930, the director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, Vesto Slipher (Venetia, Vesto, Falconer… everybody back then had awesome names…), announced that the name of the ninth planet would be Pluto.
Venetia initially received little attention for being the one who thought up the name, but her grandfather did give her £5 (£247 today by retail price, but £758 pounds today by average earnings in 1930 in Britain), which, as she said was a type of thing he did often for her, “As a grandfather, he liked to have an excuse for generosity.”
Her grandfather also donated a “scrap of paper” and sent the letter noted above to her teacher, Miss Claxton, “… in grateful recognition of your [her teacher] share in Venetia’s triumphant naming of the new planet.” The money he sent with the letter was used to purchase a gramophone for use in teaching Music Appreciation. They named the gramophone “Pluto”.
Her teacher had this to say in response to the letter, which I think contains two snippets at the end which are amazingly quote worthy:
All will realize that our part in this was small, and that much is due to Venetia’s Mother, who herself taught Venetia… and steadfastly sought the best for her. But I venture to think that this letter will be an inspiration to others as it was to me, showing as it does how big doors swing on little hinges.
We are unable to assess our work, but we have been shown the bread of life, and if we freely cast it upon the waters it will truly nourish.
If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:
- How Earth Got Its Name
- The Sun is White, Not Yellow
- The Big Dipper is Not a Constellation
- What Causes the Northern and Southern Lights
- The Difference Between an Asteroid and a Comet
- As to whether the Disney dog really was named after the planet, that isn’t known for sure. “We thought the name [Rover] was too common, so we had to look for something else. … We changed it to Pluto the Pup … but I don’t honestly remember why,” said Disney animator Ben Sharpsteen (who also, incidentally, directed Pinocchio and Dumbo). That being said, given that the dog was given the name around the same time Pluto was major news and it sounded good as “Pluto the Pup”, it seems plausible enough that the idea for “Pluto” probably was thanks to the naming of the dwarf planet.
- Even though Lowell died in 1916, he actually had unknowingly managed to photograph Pluto on March 19, 1915. But those at the observatory didn’t realize what the feint object was. Further, Pluto is known to have been “discovered” sixteen times without the discoverer realizing what they were looking at. The first such known discovery was on August 20, 1909 at Yerkes Observatory.
- So given that they’d already successfully located Pluto in 1915, why did it take another 15 years to realize what they were looking at? Because after Lowell died in 1916, a 10 year legal battle ensued over an endowment Lowell had made to the observatory totaling about a million dollars ($20M today). Lowell’s widow, Constance, was suing to get that portion of Lowell’s assets for herself, rather than have it go to the observatory as Lowell had stated in his Will. Because of this legal battle, it wasn’t until 1929 when the observatory would once again look for “Planet X”.
- While early estimates put Pluto’s mass around that of Earth and shortly thereafter, of Mars, it wasn’t until 1978 that the discovery of Charon, a moon of Pluto, allowed scientists to accurately estimate the mass of Pluto, which ended up being just 0.00218 the mass of the Earth or 0.178 of the Moon.
- Pluto itself was finally discovered (by someone who realized what he was looking at) by a 23 year old Kansan, Clyde Tombaugh. Tombaugh had been hired by the director of the Lowell Observatory, Vesto Slipher, to find Planet X. Tombaugh took pictures of the night sky and would compare them using a “blink comparator” (basically, just a machine that would switch pictures back and forth quickly). This would allow Tombaugh to see motion of objects in the night sky. He finally nailed down what would be named Pluto thanks to three pictures taken on January 21, 23, and 29th. A process of confirming what he’d found ensued until the discovery was finally announced in the Harvard College Observatory on March 13, 1930.
- Pluto is not the ninth most massive known object directly orbiting the Sun. That honor goes to Eris, discovered in 2005. Eris is approximately three times further away from the Sun as Pluto and is the most distant known natural object in our Solar System outside of comets. Eris itself also is known to have a moon, Dysnomia. It was partially the discovery of Eris that set aflame the argument over what should be considered a planet or not.
- Before Eris was called Eris, the discoverers called it Xena, after Xena: Warrior Princess.
- Venus is named after the goddess of love. It is thought this planet got its name from the fact that it is “pretty” to look at as the third most bright object in our solar system in the sky as viewed from Earth (after the Sun and the Moon).
- The name of the goddess, Venus, probably comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *wen-, meaning “to strive after, wish, desire, or be satisfied”.
- Mercury is named after the god of thievery, tradesmen or commerce, and travel. It is thought that the planet probably was named such due to how quickly, relatively speaking, it travels across the sky.
- Mars was named after the Roman god of war. It’s thought that it was labeled such based on the reddish hue of the planet, relating to blood.
- Jupiter is named after the god of thunder and the sky, and king of the gods. It is probable that it was named such as it is the largest non-star in our solar system. In fact, Jupiter is sometimes called a failed star, though that’s somewhat of a misnomer. Jupiter is a gas giant that didn’t have enough mass to become a star. How much more mass would Jupiter need to become a star? About 60-80 times its present amount.
- The name of the king of the gods, Jupiter, is thought to come from the Proto-Indo-European *dyeu-peter, meaning “god-father”.
- Even though not a star, Jupiter does give off a pretty massive amount of energy. In fact, it gives off more heat than it receives from the Sun. Because of this release of heat energy, Jupiter is shrinking at a rate of about 2 cm each year. If that rate were to remain constant (it wouldn’t for a variety of reason, but it’s fun to play with numbers), Jupiter would shrink to nothing in about 7 billion years. It is estimated that Jupiter is approximately 4.5 billion years old. As you might expect from that, it was significantly more massive at its peak than it is today.
- While you might think adding mass to Jupiter would make it bigger, it is thought that it would actually get smaller if you added significant mass, until the point where it would gain so much mass that it would become a star. For instance, in one theoretical model, the threshold for Jupiter getting bigger versus smaller is at about 1.6 Jupiter masses. Any more than that, and it would shrink as the pressure in its core increases.
- Saturn is named after the Roman god of agriculture. Why this was chosen as the name for the planet isn’t clear.
- Neptune was named after the god of the sea. It got its name thanks to the fact that it has a nice blue color. The name “Neptune” probably came from the Proto-Indo-European root *nebh-, meaning “cloud”, hence “moisture, wetness”.
- Uranus is named after the very early god of the sky (and father to the Titans).
- Before it was discovered that Uranus was a planet, it was thought to have been a star.
- The tradition of naming planets after mythological gods was passed down to us after Roman names for the five extraterrestrial planets they were aware of.
- An asteroid was named in honor of Venetia Burney, asteroid 6235 Burney. In addition to that, students who made a dust counter instrument to be included as a part of the New Horizons mission to Pluto named the instrument after Burney: The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter. As to Venetia’s thoughts on mankind coming so far technologically from 1930 to be able to send a spacecraft to Pluto, “It is absolutely amazing, but it is paralleled by almost everything that has happened in the world, hasn’t it? I mean we have stepped so far into the future as it were since the 1920s and 1930s. It leaves one absolutely stunned. “
- Since the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Neptune are now known as “plutoids”.
- Venetia grew up to be an accountant and later a teacher of mathematics and economics and married a mathematician, Maxwell Phair, who oddly later became the head of English at Epsom College.
- In case you’re curious, Venetia was still alive when the “Pluto is/isn’t a planet” arguments started flying and she lived to see it be demoted to a dwarf planet. She had this to say about the matter, “It’s interesting isn’t it, that as they come to demote Pluto, so the interest in it seems to have grown… At my age, I’ve been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”
- Venetia died on April 30, 2009 at the age of 90.
Expand for References
- Cartoon Monickers: An Insight Into the Animation Industry, by Walter Brasch
- The Girl Who Named Pluto
- The Planet “Pluto”
- Pluto-Bound Science Instrument Renamed
- Venetia Phair Dies at 90
- The Girl Who Named a Planet
- How Do Planets and Moons Get Their Names?
- How Did Venus Get Its Name?
- How Did Mars Get Its Name?
- Etymology of Pluto
- Etymology of Neptune
- Etymology of Uranus
- Etymology of Saturn
- Etymology of Jupiter
- Etymology of Mars
- Etymology of Earth
- Etymology of Venus
- Etymology of Mercury
- Henry George Madan
- Kelvin-Helmholtz Mechanism