From the New Horizons mission page at NASA, these spectacular shots — our newest information about our most distant world.  And the old human instincts, at seeing something previously unseen, to wonder and rejoice.

We’re still 3.3 million miles out.  Closest approach, in three days’ time — 7800 miles.

We have geology!



CNN (and everybody else in the world) is telling the same old story today, under the headline 12 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT PLUTO:

CNN is a big dumdum

I mean, it’s true that she suggested it, but so did about a billion other people.  Why does Venetia get the credit?  Well, I have a theory.

Here, for the record, are some letters and telegrams from just a few of the other folks who had the same idea.

March 17, 1930
Dr. V.M. Slipher
Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Dear Sir;

I have read in the paper the account of the finding of the new planet and being interested I would like to suggest the name of Pluto.  I chose this name because I believe this planet is as important as Neptune or Jupiter and deserves the name of the third brother.

Yours very truly,
Ruth van Sickle
Barringer High School


73FN B 23






4 AU D 32 NL



1157 AM


Indianapolis, Ind.
Mar. 16, ’30

Mr. Roger Lowell Putnam,
Dear Sir;

I suggest the name “Pluto” for the new Planet. “Atlas” is inappropriate as are others I have heard. The major planets are all named for the ancient gods. Saturn, the father of the gods, has the most distinctive world and two of his three sons are honored, Jupiter and Neptune, now in all fairness let us give the other, Pluto, his due.

As Pluto was Lord of the dark region of the dead, so this planet so far from the source of light should receive his name. Do not break the beautiful system and catalogue the new world by a name which has no real reason in it and will mean nothing to the future generations. Let us not do something for which we will have to apologize in future.

Geo. P. Kebbe

Amazing photograph of Clyde (standing, mustache) out on the farm in Burdett, Kansas.  Click the image to get the full-sized version.

Clyde Tombaugh down on the farm

Writing about Clyde’s days at home was one of the great pleasures, and challenges, of Percival’s Planet.

Yeah.  Constance Lowell had a lot of bad ideas, but her bad ideas for naming the newly discovered Planet X were…the baddest of all.  Here’s her letter to Lowell Observatory director Vesto Slipher, in February 1930:

Dr. Slipher—

Roger Putnam has written me about the intensely interesting observation that you are experiencing—that it may be Planet X I pray.  Mr. Putnam asked me if I had any thoughts about the name.  He said he had thought of “Diana”.

But no.  If it is not to be Lowell or Percival my choice is Zeus.

Zeus being the father of Aries—Aries being identified with Mars—it seemed appropriate—and Dr. Lowell was born in the sign of Aries—it is Dr. Lowell’s planet after all his years of looking for it.  And it is only right that it was his to name after himself and now my right as he is dead and gone, in the Air of the Universe—and he was like a Zeus—

Sin yrs
Const Lowell

Yesterday we got the first surface resolution of Charon, Pluto’s largest (and first discovered) moon. Pluto and Charon

(Thanks as always to the excellent for this composite picture.)

Charon wasn’t discovered until 1978 — almost fifty years after Clyde Tombaugh first spotted Pluto’s infinitesimal speck on those big glass plates he’d exposed during hour-long sessions at the 13-inch telescope atop Mars Hill.  Here’s the Zeiss Blink Comparator he used to compare one plate with another.  (Formerly housed in the beautiful Saturn Dome room at Lowell Observatory, the comparator has now been moved to the Smithsonian Institution.)

It’s hard to convey exactly how tiny the speck of Pluto is on those plates — but boy, is it tiny.  So small, in fact, that Pluto could easily have gone undiscovered for decades.  Only a man like Clyde Tombaugh — diligent, devoted, impossibly obsessive — could have found it.  Read more about Clyde’s homemade telescope here, and more about Clyde generally here.

And if you’re so inclined, you can check out my novel about Clyde Tombaugh and the discovery of Pluto here.  Order one here today!  (End of commercial.)

and what we do.  A great explanatory video here from the New York Times.  And this screenshot of the capsule containing Clyde’s ashes.  Go, Muron’s boy!

muron's boy

Here we go, folks.

A small portion of Tombaugh’s ashes are on board the New Horizons probe.

Clyde, you’re almost there.


Hence the pizza!  Nice of the NY Times Op-Ed page to allow me a little room to celebrate what would have been Clyde Tombaugh’s 105th birthday.

No doubt Percival Lowell (1855-1916) is worth a novel in his own right.  Though he’s been dead nearly a century now, his life has to strike us as almost theatrically staged, tinged with madness, loss and obsession — and aligned in some mysterious fashion with the hidden workings of the universe.

The Lowell family is legendary in Massachusetts; with the Cabots, Lodges, Forbeses and Adamses they are (or were) the Brahminest of the Brahmins, producing inventors, entrepreneurs, novelists, abolitionists, architects, etc.  His brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943) became president of Harvard; his sister, the poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  Percy himself studied mathematics at Harvard under Benjamin Peirce, graduating with distinction.  In 1893, having encountered the work of astronomer Camille Flammarion — and finding his way thereby to the wonders of Mars via a “spiritist” avenue — Lowell turned his attention to the nighttime sky.

He was an intent, imaginative observer; his hundreds of drawings of the Martian surface attest to his many long nights at the objective.  We now understand that the “canals” he saw were in fact moving patterns of dust and sand, varying seasonally with the changing of the Martian weather.  (And if you’d like a tour of the Martian landscape today, you can scoot on over to Google Mars.  Too cool.)  Still, Lowell’s drawings retain their evocative power.  In their unusual proportions, odd angularity, and the patterned combination of irregular nodes and slender tendrils, we may see an echo of the spidery elegance of the Art Nouveau movement exerting some imaginative influence:

And I know I can’t be the only one to see the Paris Metro design as peculiarly Martian, or at least H.G. Wellsian…

with the defining Art Nouveau monsters being the terrifying Martian tripods!

Anyway, Lowell’s 1895 volume Mars makes for interesting reading today; in it, we can see Lowell struggling to make sense of what he saw — and struggling to restrain his own excitement about what he thought he saw — which was, to his mind, evidence of an advanced civilization at work, effortlessly altering the surface of its home planet. It is, I think, a hopeful gaze that Lowell turned to Mars; and surely his mix of imagination and dedication also characterized his later search for Planet X.

Safe to say, Percival Lowell began with a hypothesis that excited him — that Martians existed, that Planet X was out there — and worked through his evidence, hoping keenly he would find what he wanted to see, occasionally tempering his hope with caution:

But look!  Here’s some evidence that the Martians are actually paying some attention. That, or the rubber gloves don’t fit AT ALL at Google Books.

(What can be going on here?)

Thanks due to Antoinette Beiser, Kevin Schindler, Travis Marsala as Alan Barber, Kevin Strehlow as Clyde Tombaugh, and Chris Crockett (for his cameo as Vesto Slipher!) — and of course to the fine crew of Nobun Productions, without whom this book trailer etc etc.

Percival Lowell and his secretary, Wrexie Louise Leonard, were constant companions from 1893.  They exchanged fond letters; they each had a bedroom in the Baronial Mansion on Mars Hill; and together they tended the garden behind the Clark Observatory, proud of the watermelons and wary of the invading rabbits – calling them “Jack Rabbit, Esqr.”

But, as William Putnam says in The Explorers of Mars Hill, “proper Bostonians just did not marry their secretaries.”  Instead, Percival Lowell married the irascible Constance Savage Keith in 1908.  What exactly compelled him to choose Constance over any of the other options is unknown; it is well known, however, that Constance disliked the long-established Wrexie, believing her a rival for Percy’s affections.

And maybe she was.  Percival Lowell asked Wrexie to stay on as his secretary; remarkably, she did.  And when Lowell died in 1916, Wrexie sat down and composed a tribute to the man she had accompanied for nearly twenty years.

The book’s epigraph demonstrates the devotion Wrexie felt for Percy.  As William Putnam helpfully points out, hidden in the epigraph’s several lines are tributes to Lowell himself and two of his most faithful “computers” at Harvard College Observatory — the doughty Elizabeth Langdon Williams and John Kenneth McDonald — as well as the two women who made up the binary stars of the great astronomer’s romantic life.

Preambient light = Percival Lowell
Waning, lingers long = Wrexie Louise Leonard
Ere lost within = Elizabeth Langdon Williams
Just, kind, masterful = John Kenneth McDonald
Life’s sweet constant = Lowell Savage Constance

Could it possibly be a coincidence that only Constance Savage Lowell’s  initials are reversed — Constance being, as William Putnam notes, “the one who almost succeeded in completely negating [Lowell’s] life’s work?”  Might Wrexie have been extracting, here, a very quiet kind of of revenge?

In any case, it’s a fitting tribute to a man whose own initials – PL – are embedded in the very name of the planet whose discovery he made possible. If it was love, it was a love contained and tamed – or so it would appear – but one that insisted, in this smallest of ways, on proclaiming itself.

A blogger at the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science has been writing about the Planet X story lately; in his most recent post, Darin points out that in the initial announcement in 1930, V.M. Slipher went out of his way to credit Percival Lowell for leading the way to the planet’s ultimate discovery — while underplaying Clyde Tombaugh’s central role in the painstaking photographic search.

The extension of credit to Lowell, and the relative under-recognition of Tombaugh, could suggest that Slipher simply knew where his bread was buttered.  You give credit to the man with his name on the letterhead, after all, not the undereducated farmboy from Kansas.  And part of the mission of Lowell Observatory was to rehabilitate the reputation of its founder, who was thought to be a bit of a kook.

(For example, Lowell had believed passionately in the existence of a Martian civilization — sustained by an elaborate series of canals.)

It’s worth noting that Slipher’s relationship to Lowell — and the Lowell family — was (understandably) a complicated one. By 1930, Slipher’s old friend Lowell had been dead for fourteen years. Constance, Percival’s widow, had been a thorn in Slipher’s side since the astronomer’s death, spending more than a decade fighting Lowell’s multimillion-dollar bequest to his own Observatory and cutting the astronomers’ salaries in the bargain. On the other hand, once the Planet X project got underway again in 1928, the Lowell family (apart from Constance) invested substantially in the equipment needed, including the remarkable triplet lens the 13-inch astrograph required. It can be imagined that the family expected results from their investment, and that Slipher’s emphasis of Lowell’s role in the discovery of Planet X was indeed at once an acknowledgment of his old friend’s ancient, originating ambition and a recognition of the family’s more recent, crucial involvement.

But consider another line as well. Slipher — and others involved in the Planet X search — knew they had an unusual case in Pluto.  Even before announcing their discovery to the world, they had tipped to the notion that Lowell’s calculations had not in fact been borne out by the discovery of Planet X, because it was too small to have been detected mathematically.  Still, one can imagine Slipher and the others being reluctant to get in the way of a good news story.  We don’t know who wrote “confirmed” here in the headline, but I bet Slipher didn’t protest too much.

Note that this question should be distinguished from the matter of whether Planet X should have been called a “planet” to begin with.  What other word would have fit?  Though its exact dimensions weren’t clear, it was still thought to be a fairly large object.  Certainly it was no asteroid.

Back in October I had the chance to give a talk in conjunction with Dr. Bruce Greenway, a fellow Michigander and an actual professional astronomer.  He made the most convincing case I’ve seen for Pluto’s reclassification — demonstrating beyond the shadow of a doubt that Pluto has far more in common with objects like Eris, Ceres, and Pallas than bodies like Mercury, Mars, Earth, or other canonical planets.  The difference in mass is crucial — and the degree to which this massiveness has allowed the principal bodies in question to clear the neighborhood around their orbits.  If you’re wondering whether Pluto’s more like Eris or Mercury, this graph ought to make the case plain:

I’m cribbing this slide from Bruce’s PowerPoint.  It points out exactly how drastically the difference in mass affects the amount of other “crap” in the neighborhood.  And seems to suggest that — all legacy considerations aside — Pluto ought to be categorized with its fellow dwarves.

We ought also to be struck by how extremely unlikely it was that Clyde would have seen such a tiny little thing.

The stalwart and ever-interesting Fiction Writers Review has posted the conversation I had recently with Michael Shilling (author of the novel Rock Bottom) — in which we get into all kinds of writerly business. Check it out!

“When I’m down in the guts of a book I work sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph, scene-to-scene, and I worry about pacing, timing, narrative interest, that sort of thing, and then suddenly there’ll be a chiming sound from some unfamiliar area of my brain that will suggest that A is going to fit neatly, or interestingly, into slot B. Which I then take note of, I think, and go on doing what I was doing. If you can understand the book you’re writing as you’re writing it, I think, it’s not big or interesting enough.”

The Tombaughs were farmers of wheat and oats; together with other farmers in Pawnee County, they were part owners of a great steam tractor and thresher, like the one here below (I couldn’t find a picture of the Tombaughs farming).  Clyde Tombaugh was responsible for some of the maintenance on the thresher, and some of the same equipment he used for grinding his lenses he also employed in the sharpening of the thresher’s many blades.  The meticulous, umcomplaining work he did around the farm would surely be of help to him later, when he was poring over the endless photographs of the night sky, looking for the one moving speck that would be Planet X.


The steam tractor provides the power for the great whirring thresher belts while you rake the cut wheat and gather it into your arms and throw it into the thesher mouth, to be separated grain from chaff.  After an hour of standing beside the roaring machines, gathering the cut wheat into your arms, bending and standing, raking and kneeling, you stop hearing the engine, you stop thinking of hearing as something you do, and then all at once the noise emerges again into your consciousness, full of its many constituent parts, a rumble and a liquid pounding and a million high whinnying sounds from the belts and other things besides.  You feel it in your sternum in a strangely personal way.

Just too good, that’s all.  See this and other awesome Zarmina’s World tourist posters (from the future) at the old reliable


Saving up my Interworld Credits starting now.

Steven Vogt of UC Santa Cruz has been getting a lot of attention lately for his discovery of a “Cinderella” exoplanet – one right in the habitable zone of its star.  Officially called Gliese 581g, he’s unofficially named it after his wife, who happens to have an excellent moniker herself — Zarmina.  I think she’s from Earth, but her name is otherworldly, and just the sort of name you want to hang on a newly discovered world.  Lively discussions are underway as to whether Zarmina (the planet, not the lady) might be actually habitable, and if so, by what.  Vogt has, entertainingly, assured us that life does exist there.  Paul Gilster at the superb blog Centauri Dreams has some excellent coverage of the whole question — and manages to fold a lovely review of Percival’s Planet into the mix, too.

Zarmina has an orbital period of 37 days, orbiting at a distance of 0.146 AU from its star. Its mass appears to be 3.1 to 4.3 times that of Earth, with a radius of 1.3 to 2.0 times that of Earth. Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet with a solid surface.   It’s about 20 light years from us — a mere stroll in astronomical terms.

Of course, you can always take them home — why not!  Free! 

Spirit, the inflight magazine of Southwest Airlines, has a nice mention here of Percival’s Planet, again alongside some fine company.  It’s nice to be back in Spirit — and who can complain being mentioned alongside the lovely and talented Drew Barrymore?   (I think I’m responsible for about 245,000 of those google hits myself.)  (Too much information.)  Thanks, Derek, for sending this my way!

Parade Magazine, home of Marilyn vos Savant and Howard Huge, gives Percival’s Planet a nice mention — amid some pretty cool company.  I will take this opportunity to announce that starting today I will be doing a three-person show with Patti Lupone and Leonard Cohen, opening in my brain, running for eternity.

The letters began arriving immediately – proud Americans clamoring to hang a moniker on the new world.  Thanks to Antoinette Beiser for scanning a few of these beautiful examples – straight from the gorgeous archives of Lowell Observatory.   Planet Eureka:

And Planet Twelow:

And Planet Burdett, of course!