Eleven-year-old Venetia Burney was eating breakfast at her home in Oxford, England, on the morning of March 14, 1930, when her grandfather delivered some exciting news. Clyde Tombaugh, an eagle-eyed assistant at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, had discovered visual proof of a long-theorized “trans-Neptunian object” on the edge of the solar system. The scientists gave their discovery the placeholder name of Planet X, but Venetia had a better idea.
“Why not call it Pluto?” she asked. In Roman mythology, Pluto wasn’t just Neptune’s brother. He was also the ruler of the underworld. And it stood to reason, Venetia said, that because Planet X orbited so far away from the sun, it would be as lifeless, cold and overcast as the shadowlands themselves.
Venetia’s grandfather, Falconer Madan, a retired librarian of Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, seized upon the idea. He immediately routed her suggestion to Oxford astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who in turn dashed off a telegraph to Lowell Observatory. It read: “Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.”