The remarkable girl who named Pluto

Around this time last year I was planning a trip to New Zealand and celebrating publication of my new book Where Did Pluto Go?

Venetia Burney
Venetia as a child

This was a look at how our knowledge and ideas about the solar system have been constantly changing. It was written in the light of the official decision to strip Pluto of its full planet status – hence its title.

As many will know, though Pluto was discovered from the U.S. by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, it was actually named by an 11-year-old English girl.

Venetia Burney, pictured left, was having breakfast with her grandfather Falconer Madan when he read of the discovery of this new world in his newspaper and told her.

Venetia, who then had a keen interest in mythology, suggested it be named Pluto after the Roman God of the Underworld – not after a Disney pooch as many seem to think.

Her grandfather was extremely well connected, being Librarian of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, no less. Her suggestion was quickly passed on to the Percival Lowell Observatory from where Pluto was spotted.

They loved it – no doubt partly because the observatory founder’s initials formed the first two letters of Pluto – and the name was officially adopted.

It was a lovely story and, when I learned that Venetia, now 90, lived not far from my south west London home, in Surrey, I knew I wanted to meet her and give her a copy of my book.

I wrote to Venetia, now a retired schoolteacher with the married name Phair. She kindly replied with a hand-written letter agreeing to meet but saying we would have to delay as she needed to go to hospital for some tests.

We agreed a date but Venetia took the trouble to write to me again to postpone when she was detained longer in hospital than she had expected.

At the end of March, I left England for a seven-week stay in New Zealand, returning in late May. When I got home, I found a letter from Venetia’s son telling me the sad news that she had died while I was away. I would never meet Venetia.

I mention all this because of a remarkable short film that I saw last year about Venetia and Pluto. Surprisingly perhaps, she reached old age without ever seeing the world she had named.

The film, available on a delightful DVD called Naming Pluto from Father Films, tells how attempts were finally made for Venetia to view her distant ex-planet through a telescope. Initial efforts failed but everyone persevered and, without wishing to spoil the story, I think I can say there was a happy ending.

Naming Pluto has been screened at 40 Film and Science festivals in 17 countries and is endorsed by the IAU and UNESCO as a special project for the International Year of Astronomy. You can see a YouTube preview below.

In the meantime, I will treasure my two hand-written letters – the closest contact I ever had with the remarkable girl who named Pluto.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

3 thoughts on “The remarkable girl who named Pluto

  • 02/04/2010 at 9:15 pm

    This is a beautiful but sad story. I too would have liked to meet Venetia.

    However, I want to point out that Pluto is NOT an "ex-planet." Please do not blindly accept the controversial demotion as reality when it represents only one opinion in an ongoing debate.

    Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, 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. One reason the IAU definition makes no sense is it says dwarf planets are not planets at all! That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the IAU definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity–a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds. These reasons are why many astronomers, lay people, and educators are either ignoring the demotion entirely or working to get it overturned. I am a writer and amateur astronomer and proud to be one of these people. You can read more about why Pluto is a planet and worldwide efforts to overturn the demotion on my Pluto Blog at

    I recommend you read Alan Boyle's new book "The Case for Pluto" and Dr. David Weintraub's book "Is Pluto A Planet?" for more information on the other side of this issue.

  • 02/04/2010 at 10:16 pm

    Pluto's demotion IS a reality while the IAU have jurisdiction over such matters. Anything else is wishful thinking.
    While researching my book Where Did Pluto Go? I was fascinated to discover that when the discovery of Pluto was announced in 1930, doubts were already being expressed about whether it was a planet.

  • 03/20/2010 at 5:13 am

    The IAU has jurisdiction over such matters only to the point that people consent to them having it. If enough astronomers decide the IAU is wrong and refuse to follow its dictates, as has happened with Pluto, that jurisdiction is unenforcable. In his recent NOVA documentary, Neil de Grasse Tyson made it clear that there is no consensus among astronomers as to whether or not Pluto counts as a planet.

    As Dr. Alan Stern said, the IAU can declare the sky is green, but that does not make it so. And the concept of blindly following a decree simply because a tiny group in a position of "authority" said so is not science; it's dogma.

    I am aware that Pluto's planet status has been in question since 1931, as I have done public presentations on this topic. That is still the case. The IAU view is nothing more than one interpretation of reality, not some sort of "gospel truth."

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