21 July 2015
The Bodleian Libraries can lay claim to a very special connection with the dwarf planet Pluto, photographed for the very first time this July by the NASA New Horizons probe.
On 12 March 1930 it was announced that a new, unnamed planet had been discovered. That morning over breakfast, former Bodley's Librarian Falconer Madan read this announcement in The Times to his daughter, Ethel Burnely, and eleven-year-old grand-daughter Venetia Burnely. After hearing this news Venetia, who was aware that all the planets in the solar system are named after ancient gods or goddesses, suggested that the new planet 'might be called Pluto'. The idea of a distant, dark planet, Pluto, being named after the god of the underworld, seemed a very apt choice thought Venetia's grandfather, Falconer Madan. Madan passed her suggestion on to his friend, Oxford astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who in turn forwarded the suggestion to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, where the discovery of the planet had taken place. Many ideas for the new planet's name were submitted, with stiff competition from astronomical societies and people around the world, but Pluto was eventually voted as the official name on 24 March 1930. Venetia was formally given credit for being the first one to suggest the adopted name. Falconer rewarded his grand-daughter with a £5 note and she remains, to date, the only woman in the world to have named a planet.
View some of the Bodleian Libraries' astronomical items in our current Marks of Genius exhibition in the Weston Library.