Venetia Phair, who suggested the name Pluto for the
planet orbitting body space thingee we call Pluto died recently. How it came to be called Pluto is fascinating:
Frozen and lonely, Planet X circled the far reaches of the solar system awaiting discovery and a name. It got one thanks to an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, an enthusiast of the planets and classical myth.
On March 14, 1930, the day newspapers reported that the long-suspected “trans-Neptunian body” had been photographed for the first time, she proposed to her well-connected grandfather that it be named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld.
And so it was.
Except it wasn’t that simple:
Mr. Turner, as it happened, was in London for a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, where word of the new planet had members buzzing, and proposals for a name flew fast and furious. “I think PLUTO excellent!!” he wrote to Mr. Madan on his return. “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.” (Kronos is the Greek equivalent of Saturn.)
Mr. Turner immediately sent a telegram to Flagstaff: “Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.”
Unbeknownst to Venetia, a spirited battle ensued, with suggestions flying thick and fast. Minerva looked like the front runner, until it was pointed out that the name already belonged to an asteroid. Other candidates included Zeus, Atlas and Persephone. The Austrian engineer and cosmologist Hans Hörbiger proposed the inscrutable and unpronounceable Onehtn, meaning “first trans-Neptune.”
Capt. Charles E. Freeman, the superintendent of the Naval Observatory in Washington, regarded Pluto as a long shot. “Pluto is the prototype of Satan in many minds, and drops out for that reason, perhaps,” he said.
In the end, scientists at the Lowell Observatory voted unanimously for Pluto, partly because its first two letters could be interpreted as an homage to Percival Lowell, and on May 24 the new planet received its official name.
But this is pretty funny:
Alan M. MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky and Telescope, foresees sweeter vindication ahead. “In the year 4,000 A.D., when Pluto is hollowed out and millions of people are living inside,” he said, “the name of Venetia Burney may be the only thing that Great Britain is remembered for.”
Sometimes, the obituaries aren’t so depressing after all….