Venetia Burney: The Girl Who Named Pluto

The Girl Who Named Pluto

Ninety years ago a charming young girl named Venetia Burney captivated the public with her clever suggestion.  She knew mythology!  She also knew the history and naming conventions of objects in the solar system.  When she heard the news about the discovery of a new planet, she used her knowledge and creativity to come up with a perfectly clever name — PLUTO!

Venetia Burney Age 11 in 1929

Photo Wikipedia Fair Use

A Family History of Naming Solar System Objects

Fifty years earlier, Venetia’s great-uncle, Henry George Madan, named the moons of Mars:  Deimos and Phobos.  Venetia knew the honor this brought to her family.  The work of her uncle provided great influence and inspiration as Venetia researched and studied.

Pluto, God of the Underworld

Scientists considered many names for the newly-found object.  Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the planet, suggested a name to honor Percival Lowell.  The late astronomer Lowell had significantly contributed to the discovery, but had died a few years earlier.

Many scientists wanted a name from Roman mythology.  Characterists of Roman gods appropriately represent the other planets.  For instance, Mercury (messenger god) well-represents its quick orbit around the sun.  Similarly, Venus (goddess of love and beauty) perfectly fits the brightest shining beauty in the sky.  Mars (god of war) represents the red planet.  Obviously, Jupiter (king of gods) fits the largest planet in the solar system.  After that, Saturn is Jupiter’s father and Uranus is Saturn’s father.  Finally, Neptune (god of the sea) well-suits the dark blue planet.

How clever for Venetia to recognized the characteristcs of Pluto!  The Roman god of the underworld perfectly represents the dark, distant object that had been elusively hidden for years!

Dwarf Planet Pluto

Pluto Today

At its discovery on February 18, 1930, scientists considered Pluto the 9th planet of the solar system.  In 2006 scientists refined the definition of planets.  As a result, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

On July 14, 2015 NASA’s New Horizons space probe achieved a flyby of Pluto.  New Horizons captured the above image, revealing a heart-shaped region endearingly nicknamed “Pluto’s Heart”!

Venetia Burney, The Girl Who Named Pluto


Posted in Flash to the Past, Space Scouts