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 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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