Frozen and lonely, Planet X circled the far reaches of the solar system awaiting discovery and a name. It got one thanks to an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, an enthusiast of the planets and classical myth.
On March 14, 1930, the day newspapers reported that the long-suspected “trans-Neptunian body” had been photographed for the first time, she proposed to her well-connected grandfather that it be named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld.
And so it was.
Venetia Phair, as she became by marriage, died April 30 in her home in Banstead, in the county of Surrey, England. She was 90. The death was confirmed by her son, Patrick.
Venetia, on the fateful day that Pluto popped into her head, was having breakfast with her mother and her grandfather, Falconer Madan, retired librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. He had exciting news to tell. Scientists at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., had just photographed a planet lying beyond Neptune. Its existence had been postulated since the late 19th century, and astronomers working under Percival Lowell, the observatory’s founder, had been chasing it photographically since 1906. Now theory had become fact.
“He wondered what it should be called,” Mrs. Phair recalled in the documentary film, “Naming Pluto,” released last month. “We all wondered, and then I said, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ And the whole thing stemmed from that.”
Mr. Madan passed the idea along to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford. Pluto, he suggested in a letter, was an excellent name for “the big obscure new baby.”
Mr. Turner, as it happened, was in London for a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, where word of the new planet had members buzzing, and proposals for a name flew fast and furious. “I think PLUTO excellent!!” he wrote to Mr. Madan on his return. “We did not manage to think of anything so good at the RAS yesterday. The only at all meritorious suggestion was Kronos, but that won’t do alongside Saturn.” (Kronos is the Greek equivalent of Saturn.)
Mr. Turner immediately sent a telegram to Flagstaff: “Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.”
Unbeknownst to Venetia, a spirited battle ensued, with suggestions flying thick and fast. Minerva looked like the front runner, until it was pointed out that the name already belonged to an asteroid. Other candidates included Zeus, Atlas and Persephone. The Austrian engineer and cosmologist Hans Hörbiger proposed the inscrutable and unpronounceable Onehtn, meaning “first trans-Neptune.”
Capt. Charles E. Freeman, the superintendent of the Naval Observatory in Washington, regarded Pluto as a long shot. “Pluto is the prototype of Satan in many minds, and drops out for that reason, perhaps,” he said.
In the end, scientists at the Lowell Observatory voted unanimously for Pluto, partly because its first two letters could be interpreted as an homage to Percival Lowell, and on May 24 the new planet received its official name.
Mr. Madan gave his granddaughter a five-pound note, and the family added yet another feather to its cap: in 1877, Mr. Madan’s brother Henry, a housemaster at Eton, had successfully proposed that the two dwarf moons of Mars be named Phobos and Deimos, two attendants of the Roman war god, whose names mean fear and terror.
“Pluto is an excellent name, for two reasons,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium and author of “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet,” said in a telephone interview. “First, it’s a Roman god, as are the rest of the large objects in the solar system, so it conforms to the rules of the time, and second, Pluto is the god of the underworld, a distant place you don’t want to go to. Who could not love the name?”
Venetia Katherine Burney was born in Oxford, where her father, the Rev. Charles Fox Burney, was a professor of scriptural interpretation. He died when Venetia was 6, and she and her mother went to live with Mr. Madan.
Venetia developed an interest in astronomy after playing a game with other children in which lumps of clay, standing for the planets, were placed on a lawn in their positions relative to the sun.
She attended Downe House, a boarding school in Berkshire, and, after studying mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, became a chartered accountant. She later taught economics and math at two girls’ schools in southwest London. In 1947 she married Maxwell Phair, a classicist, who became housemaster and head of English at Epsom College. She is survived by her son, of Cheltenham.
Mrs. Phair tended to play down her stroke of genius. She came up with Pluto, she said, simply because it was one of the few important Roman gods still available for planetary duty. “Whether I thought about a dark, gloomy Hades, I’m not sure,” she told the BBC in 2006.
Regardless, Pluto was an instant success. Walt Disney used it for Mickey Mouse’s dog, and it provided the name for Element 94 in the Periodic Table, plutonium, which was first identified in 1941. In 1987 the asteroid 6235 Burney was named in Mrs. Phair’s honor, as was a dust-measuring instrument on board New Horizons, the NASA spacecraft that took off for Pluto in 2006.
Mrs. Phair took it in stride when the International Astronomical Union decreed that Pluto was not a planet at all. It was a dwarf planet, and not even the largest one, a lump of rock and ice orbiting in a ring of icy debris known as the Kuiper Belt.
Some face was saved last year when the union announced the coining of the term “plutoid” to designate a dwarf planet beyond the orbit of Neptune. More vexing to Mrs. Phair was the persistent notion that she had taken the name from the Disney character. “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.”
Alan M. MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky and Telescope, foresees sweeter vindication ahead. “In the year 4,000 A.D., when Pluto is hollowed out and millions of people are living inside,” he said, “the name of Venetia Burney may be the only thing that Great Britain is remembered for.”