March 2010

Early reviews are like echo-location; by assessing the character of the report, you can begin to get a sense of the shape of the thing in front of you  — that is, the impending reception your book will enjoy (or not, as the case may be).

Library Journal’s first in with what they call a prepub “alert”.

So…warning!  Pluto book incoming!

“Interesting….sophisticated….costs $27.00!”

And as for you, Kate Grenville, welcome to the amazing world of…Percival’s Planet!


When I was out in Flagstaff doing research for Percival’s Planet, the excellent archivist at Lowell Observatory — Antoinette Beiser is her name — was generous enough to scan this image we found in the heaps of letters, files, ledgers, and other glorious musty stuff.  This image shows the astronomers trying to calculate the mysterious object’s orbit; they had to work with the very few images they had of it.  They could tell the object was much smaller than they’d anticipated — not the gas giant they had expected.  This plate shows them at work, determining the strange orbit of the peculiar artifact Clyde Tombaugh had turned up.

I find this image weirdly beautiful; I catch myself zooming in on portions of it.  You’ll see I’ve stolen part of it for the header for this blog.

Research is a seduction.  It’s not writing, for one thing, so it produces the illusion of work without the strain.  But it has such pleasures to offer – the mysterious immediacy of old charts, with their hidden stories; the sweet smell of elderly paper; the glorious cracking of glue; the silence of a library table, where no one knows what you’re up to.

They were a cautious bunch, V.M. Slipher especially.  Years of association with Percival Lowell’s brand of lunacy can leave you a little gun-shy.

But the “object” they’ve found is “one apparently fulfilling Lowell’s theoretical findings”.  In other words, this strange, tiny body is just where it’s supposed to be — going by Percival Lowell’s decades of residual calculations.  And it’s definitely “trans-Neptunian” — that is, it’s out past Neptune, and it’s retrograding.  And the only thing that retrogrades is something in orbit around the sun.

So what is it, if not a planet?

Well, you’ve got to possess a certain kind of character to have an elementary school named after you.  To wit: Clyde Tombaugh Elementary in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Go Comets!

Once again, from the spectacular archives of Lowell Observatory – with thanks to Antoinette Beiser.


Harbert, Michigan
April 6 1930

My dear Professor Gills, and others of the New Planet,

I am not a name prize winner but no one love stars and planets more than I.  I often think I fell from one, by accident, as I have never really felt at home on this.  I am always hoping some one will receive a message from “Mars.”  I hope to go there when I die.  But this new Planet better and I do hope you will call it “Shu,” God of the Atmosphere”, for surely this is god over all the world in air, as recently found by Mr. Howard Canter, in the Annex of the Tutankhamen Tomb.

What could be a more fitting name for this great world uplifting womankind, to do our great [illegible], as [illegible] on these strange worlds – may they not be made warm and pleasant by some internal heating rays of which we have no even discovered.

Josephine L. Tabour.


Rowley, Alberta
April 2, 1929.
Dear Sirs,

I have seen in the papers where a new planet has been discovered, and much excitement going on to what its name should be.  I suggest Minerva or Apollo as it took much wisdom to find it and patience, but if Minerva is to turned down name it Appollo as he was good at most everything.

Yours truly
Jesse Lamb.


93 Cliff Ave
Winthrop Highlands, Mass
March 30th 1930

Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff Arizona

Dear Sirs.,

I enjoyed reading about the New Planate in the Literary Digest. I thought of a few names so here they are.
Rima She’s at the Rim
Ja-nus God of the New Year 1930
Raido.  That most wonderful and misterius thing
Eagle- In honor of our American Eagle.
and our brave human Eagles of the air.

Truly Yours
Florence Hackett.

While I can’t get the video to embed here, this link shows the rotating surface of Pluto as seen through the Hubble in 1994.   This is the work of Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute and Marc Buie of Lowell Observatory.

from the link:

“Some of the variations across Pluto’s surface may be caused by topographic features such as basins, or fresh impact craters. However, most of the surface features unveiled by Hubble, including the prominent northern polar cap, are likely produced by the complex distribution of frosts that migrate across Pluto’s surface with its orbital and seasonal cycles and chemical byproducts deposited out of Pluto’s nitrogen-methane atmosphere. The picture was taken in blue light when Pluto was at a distance of 3 billion miles from Earth.”

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