Tuesday, July 10, 2018

English girl Venetia Burney, 11, named Pluto | Daily Telegraph

English girl Venetia Burney, 11, who suggested the name Pluto in 1930, remains the only female to have named a planet

EGYPTOLOGY would likely have been the topic of discussion in Falconer Madan's north Oxford house had his daughter Ethel Burney been home.

Instead Madan, the retired librarian at Oxford University's Bodleian repository, was browsing the London Times while dining with his granddaughter Venetia, then aged 11.

He pointed out an article on page 14 of the March 14, 1930, edition, about the discovery of a new planet which was yet to be named, and remarked on it to Venetia.

With a keen interest in Greek and Roman mythology, Venetia suggested the name Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld who could become invisible, as an appropriate name for the dark planet. In doing so she became the only female to have named a planet.

"I can still visualise the table and the room, but I can remember very little about the conversation," Venetia, who in 1947 married classicist Maxwell Phair, told the BBC in 2006.

Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney was born 100 years ago, on July 11, 1918, at Oxford, the daughter of Oriel Professor of Interpretation of Holy Scripture Charles Fox Burney, and his wife, Ethel Wordsworth Madan.

Venetia Burney, 11, named Pluto, in 1930.
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Burney died when Venetia was six, and she and her mother went to live with her maternal grandparents. From 1929 her mother pursued a career at Oxford's Griffith Institute with Rosalind Moss, who since the early 1920s had worked as an editorial assistant with bibliographer Bertha Porter on the Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings.

As Moss and Ethel travelled extensively through Egypt to visit digs, museums and collections, and gather data, they became known as The Two Ladies, recognised for their hospitality and generosity.

Venetia's grandfather, who was then coediting a bibliography on the works of author Lewis Carroll, promised to put her suggestion to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, an astronomy professor at Oxford University.

Coincidentally, that day Turner was in London at a Royal Astronomical Society meeting, where the question of naming the new plant was under discussion.

Turner also agreed Pluto was an excellent choice for the ice-covered planet and put the suggestion to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, where astronomers including Clyde Tombaugh, who had discovered the planet, accepted the suggestion.

Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto in 1930.
Clyde Tombaugh outside his home using a telescope in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1980.

Pluto was one of the few names in classical mythology not yet in use, and the first two letters were the initials of observatory founder Percival Lowell, who predicted the existence of a new body in the outer solar system.

That Venetia is the only female to name a planet illuminates the dearth of female contribution to early astronomical exploration.

"It was incredibly lucky in a number of ways," Venetia explained. I was lucky in having a grandfather who pursued the matter and knew Professor Turner. And it is extremely lucky that the name was there. Whether I thought about the dark and gloomy Hades, I'm not sure."

Venetia's great uncle Henry Madan had also suggested naming the moons of Mars as Phobos and Deimos.

"At school we used to play games in the university park, putting, I think, lumps of clay, at the right distance from each other to represent the distances of the planets from the Sun," Venetia recalled. "Some of the distances I can still more or less remember, so it was probably a good lesson to have had."

It was one month after Turner had cabled Venetia's suggestion to the American astronomers before she heard, on May 1, 1930, that the name Pluto had been formally adopted.

When the news became public, Madan rewarded his granddaughter with a £5 note.

Venetia Burney, who suggested the name for Pluto as an 11-year-old, in 2008. Picture: martin George
Venetia Burney, who suggested Pluto's name in 1930, admires a model of the New Horizons spacecraft that was launched in 2006 with the primary mission to perform a fly-by study of the Pluto system in 2015. Picture: Martin George

"This was unheard of then," she says. "As a grandfather, he liked to have an excuse for generosity."

Venetia later studied mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and became an accountant, retraining in the 1950s to become a teacher, first at Gloucester House, Sutton, then at Wallington girls school, Surrey.

Although the ninth planet was downgraded in 2017 to a dwarf planet, in 1987 the asteroid 6235 Burney was named in Venetia's honour.

Before her death in 2009, Venetia refuted a rumour that she had named the planet after Disney's cartoon dog, who debuted in September 1930.

"People were repeatedly saying: 'Ah, she named it after Pluto the dog'. It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way round. So, one is vindicated," she said.

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