I’ve seen them myself – the long lists of planetary names proposed by excited Americans in March 1930:
Splendor! Pax! Ariel! Salacia! Athenia! Nuevo! Utopia! Maximum! Tantalus! Perseus!
And – yes: Pluto.
In fact, Vesto Slipher and the Lowell Observatory staff liked “Minerva” for the new planet, but a prominent asteroid with that label already existed. Next on their own list of preferences? Pluto. As it happened, Pluto was also the second most popular name with the public, going by a tally of those dozens of folks who had been sending eager telegrams since the moment the discovery was announced.
So how did Venetia Burney somehow get credit for Pluto? It’s a cute story, sure. The little girl named a planet! And she was quick off the mark, no doubt about it – having read the news on the morning of March 14, she (being young, British, and keen) struck upon “Pluto” and mentioned it to her grandfather across the breakfast table. Her grandfather was a gent with a spectacular moniker of his own – Falconer Madan (!) — and just happened to be a retired librarian from the Bodleian Library. Old Man Madan mentioned his granddaughter’s proposal to his chum Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford — and Turner eventually sent a telegram to Flagstaff suggesting it.
More than a month went by before the planet was officially named. Vesto Slipher (speaking of spectacular monikers) and his staff consulted with one another about what to call the new planet. And — well, who better to give credit to than to a girl whose great uncle Henry Madan had named the moons of Mars – Phobos and Deimos?
But the credit could have gone to any number of people. Safe to say, the staff at Lowell knew they had a good story on their hands, and didn’t mind doing a little gilding of the lily in the person of Venetia Burney.
I mean, she’s called Venetia – it’s just too good to be true. (And it almost certainly is.)
Ms. Burney – later Venetia Phair – died April 30, 2009. Of Pluto’s demotion from planetary status, she said, “At my age, I’ve been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”
The asteroid 6235 Burney bears her handle, as does an instrument on the New Horizons spacecraft, destined to arrive in Pluto’s orbit in 2015.