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Who is Venetia Burney?

Mary Kohlmiller


 
"I'll take Planetary Discoveries for $1000." "The answer is: The 11-year old girl who named Pluto." If your response matches the headline of this story, you're a winner. Venetia Burney is the 11-year-old English girl from Oxford who named the planet Pluto after a Roman god. Pluto was the god of the underworld, a place perhaps as dark as the planet. The Greek name was Hades. Young miss Burney knew this and also knew that the first two letters would be a reminder of Percival Lowell, the person who started and funded the search for the mysterious Planet X. The Walt Disney cartoon character of the same name was created in the same year but that is apparently a coincidence. February 18th is the 75th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto. Numerous astronomers had been searching for what was known as Planet X. Percival Lowell, from a wealthy Massachusetts family, had dedicated himself to finding the mysterious Planet X since the 1890s. Other astronomers also suspected that a ninth planet existed beyond Neptune and Uranus. Percival Lowell started a comprehensive photographic search for the planet in 1905. Between 1914 and 1916, nearly 1,000 images were made with a telescope. The astronomers also began to use a blink comparator, a device that helps detect tiny changes in photographs taken of the same region of sky. In a 1991 interview Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, described that time in his life. “It was the drawings I made of the markings on Mars and Jupiter with that telescope that I sent to the Lowell Observatory in 1928. That impressed them favorably so that they invited me to come out for a trial work with the new telescope at Flagstaff. That was a big break. “What you do (when drawing planets) is, you have your drawing board and a pencil in hand at the telescope. You look in and you make some markings on the paper and you look in again. Back and forth, many, many times, so as to get the stuff in the right proportion, the right intensity. It takes about a half-hour to make a good drawing that way. When the temperature is freezing, it's a bit hard on your fingers, but I was interested in putting down what I saw. And that's what paid off. “At that time the Lowell Observatory was the only planetary observatory in the country, and I was particularly interested in planets at that time, and so I thought I would just like to see what they thought of them. The planets are never the same twice, they're always different, so they could compare the markings I had drawn with their current photographs and they knew that I was drawing what I was really seeing and it wasn't copied from somewhere. “They realized that I was careful, I saw well, and so on, and they thought I would be a good candidate to run this new photographic telescope they were installing. I was invited to come out on three months' trial and stayed 14 years.” References: http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/tom0int-1 - a 1991 interview Douglas Harvey, Department of History, University of Kansas. "Planetary Man", http://www.kuhistory.com/proto/story.asp?id=46
 


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