Venetia Burney


CNN (and everybody else in the world) is telling the same old story today, under the headline 12 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT PLUTO:

CNN is a big dumdum

I mean, it’s true that she suggested it, but so did about a billion other people.  Why does Venetia get the credit?  Well, I have a theory.

Here, for the record, are some letters and telegrams from just a few of the other folks who had the same idea.

March 17, 1930
Dr. V.M. Slipher
Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Dear Sir;

I have read in the paper the account of the finding of the new planet and being interested I would like to suggest the name of Pluto.  I chose this name because I believe this planet is as important as Neptune or Jupiter and deserves the name of the third brother.

Yours very truly,
Ruth van Sickle
Barringer High School

*

73FN B 23

CA CAMBRIDGE MASS 546P MAR 15 1930
DR V M SLIPHER

LOWELL OBSERVATORY FLAGSTAFF ARIZ

SUGGEST YOU CALL NEW PLANET PLUTO AFTER THE GOD OF UNDERWORLD THE SON OF SATURN AND ONLY REMAINING BROTHER OF JUPITER AND NEPTUNE

NOSTRADAMUS
419P

*

4 AU D 32 NL
WORCESTER MASS MAR 15
V M SLIPHER

LOWELL OBSERVATORY, FLAGSTAFF AZ

APPROPRIATE NAME FOR PLANET WOULD BE PLUTO THE VIEWLESS WHO MOVED HITHER AND YON DARK UNSEEN MYSTERIOUS STOP SEE GAYLEYS CLASSIC MYTHS STOP VULCAN SEEMS INAPPROPRIATE NAME FOR COLDEST PLANET

H L BLOOD
1157 AM

*

Indianapolis, Ind.
Mar. 16, ’30

Mr. Roger Lowell Putnam,
Dear Sir;

I suggest the name “Pluto” for the new Planet. “Atlas” is inappropriate as are others I have heard. The major planets are all named for the ancient gods. Saturn, the father of the gods, has the most distinctive world and two of his three sons are honored, Jupiter and Neptune, now in all fairness let us give the other, Pluto, his due.

As Pluto was Lord of the dark region of the dead, so this planet so far from the source of light should receive his name. Do not break the beautiful system and catalogue the new world by a name which has no real reason in it and will mean nothing to the future generations. Let us not do something for which we will have to apologize in future.

Respfly
Geo. P. Kebbe

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A fascinating post here braiding together the lives of Clyde Tombaugh, Venetia Burney, and the unusually named Plato Chan.  Born on March 14, 1930, he was supposed to be named Pluto, as it happens — and he would come to his own early fame, as Peter Sieruta points out.  Influences and perturbations indeed!

Plato (Pluto) Chan, winner of the Caldecott at age 12

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.

During my reseach for Percival’s Planet, I had the great pleasure of being assisted by Antoinette Beiser, Lowell Observatory’s delightful archivist and librarian.  She dug up the hefty cache of letters and telegrams sent to Lowell in the days immediately following the announcement of Planet X’s discovery. While Venetia Burney gets a lot of credit for coming up with the name Pluto, she was by no means the only one to think of it – as the following letters and telegrams show!

March 17, 1930
Dr. V.M. Slipher
Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Dear Sir;

I have read in the paper the account of the finding of the new planet and being interested I would like to suggest the name of Pluto.  I chose this name because I believe this planet is as important as Neptune or Jupiter and deserves the name of the third brother.

Yours very truly,
Ruth van Sickle
Barringer High School

*

73FN B 23

CA CAMBRIDGE MASS 546P MAR 15 1930
DR V M SLIPHER

LOWELL OBSERVATORY FLAGSTAFF ARIZ

SUGGEST YOU CALL NEW PLANET PLUTO AFTER THE GOD OF UNDERWORLD THE SON OF SATURN AND ONLY REMAINING BROTHER OF JUPITER AND NEPTUNE

NOSTRADAMUS
419P

*

4 AU D 32 NL
WORCESTER MASS MAR 15
V M SLIPHER

LOWELL OBSERVATORY, FLAGSTAFF AZ

APPROPRIATE NAME FOR PLANET WOULD BE PLUTO THE VIEWLESS WHO MOVED HITHER AND YON DARK UNSEEN MYSTERIOUS STOP SEE GAYLEYS CLASSIC MYTHS STOP VULCAN SEEMS INAPPROPRIATE NAME FOR COLDEST PLANET

H L BLOOD
1157 AM

*

Indianapolis, Ind.
Mar. 16, ’30

Mr. Roger Lowell Putnam,
Dear Sir;

I suggest the name “Pluto” for the new Planet. “Atlas” is inappropriate as are others I have heard. The major planets are all named for the ancient gods. Saturn, the father of the gods, has the most distinctive world and two of his three sons are honored, Jupiter and Neptune, now in all fairness let us give the other, Pluto, his due.

As Pluto was Lord of the dark region of the dead, so this planet so far from the source of light should receive his name. Do not break the beautiful system and catalogue the new world by a name which has no real reason in it and will mean nothing to the future generations. Let us not do something for which we will have to apologize in future.

Respfly
Geo. P. Kebbe

*

Coming soon – other letters with other names!