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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Planet 'Pluto'

by K.M. Claxton
Parents' Union School Diamond Jubilee Magazine, 1891-1951 (Ambleside: PUS, 1951), p. 30-32


Miss Molyneux has asked me to write for the Jubilee Magazine an account of the naming of the Planet Pluto by a P.U.S. child who was in our school at Oxford.

Apparently it all began with a school 'Nature Walk,' which one day turned itself into a 'Planet Walk.' In those days Form II still used The Sciences by E.S. Holden, and we had reached the section on the relative sizes and distances of the planets.

Leaving the sun, represented by a circle two feet in diameter on the classroom blackboard,we set out from school carefully carrying our planets! After 41 paces we placed Mercury (the size of a canary seed) on an Oxford pavement. After 77 paces Venus, represented by a small pea, was laid down. The Earth (a pea), Mars (a small bead), Jupiter (an orange), Saturn (a golf ball) were duly placed—the last after zealous counting of 1,019 paces. Then we let our imaginations finish the walk, for it seemed best to turn back while our enthusiasm and our legs still remained fresh!

The follow-up to this came with the reading of The Age of Fable, when the children became more intimate with the characters of the Greek gods and goddesses and the nature of their kingdoms. And then one morning, March 14th, 1930, we read in the daily papers of the discovery of a new planet, a 'dark' one.

On May 28th, the following letter appeared in the London Times:

PLUTO To the Editor of The Times,

Sir,

A postcard from the President of the Royal Astronomical Society offered this morning 'congratulations to the suggester of the name Pluto, now adopted.' The reference is to a telegram which I had the honour of sending to the Lowell Observatory on March 15th (the day after the news of discovery reached England), conveying the suggestion of Miss Venetia Burney, of Oxford, made at breakfast on that day to her grandfather, who sent it on to me. I may add that it was a brother of that same grandfather who suggested the names Deimos and Phobbs for the satellites of Mars.

Yours faithfully,
H.H. Turner,

University Observatory, Oxford. May 27th.

The London Times had already referred to Venetia's suggestion as 'perhaps the happiest of all essays in classical nomenclature.' Venetia was then eleven, and when her grandfather read aloud at the breakfast table about the discovery of the planet, Venetia had ruminated for a moment or two and had then quietly said, 'I think Pluto would be a good name for it.'

On June 1st I received the following letter from Venetia's grandfather, Falconer Madan, late Librarian of the Bodleian Library. At first I thought this too personal to quote, but I see that Mr. Madan, though knowing little of the details of our work, grasped the impact that a P.N.E.U. upbringing can have on a child, and the inner perception which it gives. The 'scrap of paper' referred to, provided for the school a gramophone for Music Appreciation. It was christened Pluto and is still in existence.

Dear Miss Claxton,

I hope you will kindly accept the enclosed 'scrap of paper' as a personal gift to yourself, in grateful recognition of your share in Venetia's triumphant naming of the new planet. The Royal Astronomical Society itself could think of no better name than Kronos (not Chronos), the father of Jupiter.

I really believe that had Venetia been under a less capable and enlightened teacher than yourself, the suggestion of Pluto would not have occurred to her, or, if made, would have been just a vague guess. As it is, her acquaintance with some of the old legends of Greek and Roman deities and heroes, and that 'nature walk' in the University Parks, by which she was taught the relative spaces between the Planets and the Sun, and the gloom of distance, enabled her to grasp at once the special elements of the situation, and to be the first to make a suggestion so reasonable as to be accepted (it appears) by the whole world of Science.

I am quite aware that you might say that you are only carrying out the syllabus of the P.U.S., but I venture to congratulate you on your part in an achievement which is not only notable and singular but also of lasting interest.

I am,
Sincerely yours,
F. Madan.

All will realise that our part in this was small, and that much is due to Venetia's Mother, who herself taught Venetia in the P.U.S. and steadfastly sought the best for her. But I venture to think that this letter will be an inspiration to others as it was to me, showing as it does how big doors swing on little hinges.

We are unable to assess our work, but we have been shown the bread of life, and if we freely cast it upon the waters it will truly nourish.