By: Scott RossPublished: August 24, 2022

Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney

Henry Madan was teaching science at Eton in 1877 when the American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered two moons orbiting Mars. In a paper published the following year, Hall explained how'd he'd come to name them, Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Flight):

These names were suggested by Mr. Madan of Eton, England. They occur in Book XV of the Iliad, line 119, where Ares (Mars) is preparing to descend to the Earth to avenge the death of his son. – Bryant translates as follows:

“He spoke, and summoned Fear and Flight to yoke His steeds, and put his glorious armor on.

More than a half-century later, in 1930, Madan's brother, Falconer (I know, right?) was reading in the paper news of the discovery within the Kuiper Belt of a ninth planet, which was originally believed to be even bigger than Earth. He mentioned this to his 11-year-old granddaughter, Venetia Katharine Douglas Burney, who recommended the name Pluto, after the Roman god of the Underworld. Why Pluto? To hear Venetia tell it, it was one of the few Roman gods who'd yet to have a celestial body named in its honor, but her grandfather thought it was particularly apt for "the big obscure new baby"--the planet had been rather elusive, requiring 90 years after its existence was predicted before anyone could pin the damn thing down, and the Roman god was known for turning himself invisible.

Well, Falconer knew a guy who knew a guy and soon enough the suggestion got the the right people, and the right people thought it was a cracking good name and so on May 1, 1930, the ninth planet in our solar system was formally named Pluto. Venetia had trumped her great uncle Henry--where he'd named two measly moons, she had named a goddamn planet.

School kids were taught the names of the nine planets, Walt Disney named a dog after Pluto, everyone was happy--for a little while, anyway. By 1936, it was being suggested that Pluto was nothing more than a liberated satellite of Neptune; 1964 brought the indignity of the suggestion that it was a mere comet; things began to look really bad for Pluto in 2005 with the discovery of Eris, which is 27% larger than Pluto and also out at the ass-end of the solar system.

Finally, the International Astronomical Union had no choice but to act, they needed to get this whole "What exactly is a 'planet'?" question nailed down. On August 24, 2006, the answer came:

The IAU members gathered at the 2006 General Assembly agreed that a “planet” is defined as a celestial body that:

(a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

"Clear the neighborhood" means that the body is big enough that it produces the dominant gravitational force in its orbit, and that's where Pluto falls short, weighing only about one-fourteenth as much as the other objects in its neck of the woods.

With the stroke of a pen, the IAU had disrespected a cartoon dog, conferred obsolescence on countless textbooks, and shattered the dreams of one little girl in England who'd thought that maybe she'd outdone her famous great-uncle.

Venetia was still alive when Pluto's demotion became official, but she took it in stride, saying that she'd been much more bothered by persistent rumors that she'd named the planet after the cartoon dog.

“It has now been satisfactorily proven that the dog was named after the planet, rather than the other way around,” she told the BBC. “So, one is vindicated.”

Venetia died April 30, 2009, at the ripe old age of 90 in Banstead, in Surrey, England.


Related Articles