April 2010


Clyde Tombaugh boarded the train to Flagstaff in January 1929.  He’d been invited by Vesto Slipher for a trial period – nobody in Flagstaff knew much about Tombaugh beyond the fact that he’d made his own telescope and was in need of work.  He came cheap, anyway — he had only a high school degree.

Clyde could indeed (as I have it in Percival’s Planet) have been carrying with him the new Popular Science Monthly, which featured articles on the “world’s greatest telescope,” the “marvels of the newest electric ocean liner”,  and, for the auto buffs, “Reverse Pliers Serve as Handy Valve Lifters.”  Clyde’s train left Larned, Kansas, on January 14, 1929 – the day after another Arizona legend, Wyatt Earp, died in a Los Angeles bungalow at the age of eighty, of chronic cystitis.  (Whatever that is.)

Clyde was nervous, of course, not knowing what to expect in Flagstaff; and well he might have been.  His future was in no way certain in Arizona.  On February 7, 1929, three weeks after Tombaugh arrived, Vesto Slipher wrote (to Lowell Observatory trustee Roger Putnam, in Massachusetts):

Mr. Tombaugh, the young man from Kansas, has been here since about the middle of January.  We think he is going to develop into a useful man.  He has several good qualities that are going to make up we think for his meager training.  He is looking forward to the arrival of the new objective and is eager to be working with it.  He has good attitude; careful with apparatus, willing to do anything to make himself useful and is enthusiastic about learning and wants to do observing.  We believe these qualities will after a time largely overcome his deficiency of schooling and training.

Slipher is not terribly impressed, perhaps.  But Clyde costs him only $90 a month, and he is awfully dogged.  So Slipher lets him stay.

Such a close thing life is, at every turn.

Faultless!  Amazing!  Riveting!  Delusional!  $27.00!  Really nice stuff from PW.  Lead fiction review this week!

As I wrote, I drew a map of how the novel’s various stories intersected.  Taped to the wall beside my desk, this outline kept me marginally saner than I would have been otherwise.

The beginning…

the middle…

and the end…

Percival’s Planet tracks four separate storylines — the idea being that these several characters’ orbits interact and interfere with one another in the way that planets influence one another gravitationally.

Nice idea.  A headache to get even halfway right.  I’ve included below the first page of a five-page outline that I stuck beside my computer — this after about the fourth draft or so.  Some of what’s mentioned here remains in the novel, but much is changed.

News traveled fast.  The day after Vesto Slipher made his announcement of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery, papers around the world ran front-page headlines calling the “trans-Neptunian object” a “planet”.   Notice that while the cautious astronomers at Lowell Observatory hadn’t declared the object a planet themselves, the public did it for them.

You have to think Slipher knew this would be the case.  After all, finding a planet solved all kinds of problems for the observatory staff — most of all, the problems of expectation.  The Lowells, including Percival Lowell’s widow Constance, were keen to end the search with a success story.  They’d poured plenty of money, and a lot of heartache, into the project.

How terrible if Lowell had spent all those years just chasing ghosts.

(They don’t write them like this any longer, do they?)

These early reports are typically breathless.  Observations in the next few weeks would bear out Planet X’s apparently small size.  Rather than being 1200 times the size of Earth, Pluto is smaller than Earth’s moon.

Archival photographs are a glorious timesink.  I spent hours — days! — looking at the photos of old Kansas towns in the Wichita State University archives, getting a sense of how life might have been lived in the 1920s in Kansas.  I even found a few shots of tiny Burdett, Kansas, the nearest town to the Tombaugh farm.

A whole lot of nothing going on in those days.

As opposed to now, I suppose.

One of the gems I found was the oldest known photograph of a tornado.  Okay, so it’s from South Dakota.  Big deal.  What a gorgeously weird image this is!

You can find the original here.

One of the great thrills of my life was being hosted by Antoinette Beiser at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, while I was researching Percival’s Planetand being led into the dusty basement archives of the observatory.  I wrote the following scene — which didn’t make it into the book ultimately — after having experienced something like it in person.

Here, the young Harvard mathematician Alan Barber is being taken into the observatory vaults by the Director, Vesto Slipher — and being given access to Percival Lowell’s raw calculations — the work that convinced Lowell that a 9th planet was out there, somewhere, and that led to his publication of Memoir of a Trans-Neptunian Planet

None of this made it into the novel, but the book does contain a scene — the grandchild of this scene — in which Slipher hands Pericval Lowell’s notebooks over to Alan Barber.

The papers are as I describe them here, and the boxes — and the dust.

*                      *                    *

Vesto Slipher switches on the basement light and twirls the key on its length of twisted wire.  “This way,” he nods.

The basement smells of coal dust, firewood, and developing fluid.  They walk the length of the hall to a steel door.  Alan has never seen it opened.  He has assumed it housed some of the building’s works.  Slipher works the key into the lock.  “Percy would send us these every few months, you know,” Slipher tugs the door open onto a damp, sweet-smelling darkness.  “So we ended up with quite a collection.”

He flicks on a light.  Inside is a long, low basement vault with a cement ceiling.  Junk everywhere: discarded equipment with snipped wires, motors and housings, ladders with splintered rungs, a Victorian dollhouse split open along the green-papered parlor, dead fans.  On a shelf stands a long row of slumping notebooks, crimson and emerald green.  Slipher tugs the first one from the row, careful not to send them all to the floor.

“Percy’s notebooks,” he says.

“From the Memoir.”

“That’s right.  All the figures the computers gave him went into these.  He’d finish with one and put it in an envelope and send it out.  He always thought he’d look at them when he came out, but – ”  The director places his hands in his pockets, tips back on his heels.  “You know, he’d have changed his mind again by the time he got out here.  He was very good, you know.  Just as good as anyone you’ve got there now.  But he was sort of – you know, enthusiastic.”

Alan finds it hard to speak: it is the Aladdin’s cave of Lowell Observatory.  “Some trouble,” he manages.

“Some trouble,” Slipher agrees, mildly.  He hands Alan the key.  “It’s in order.  Starting back there.  All his calculations going back thirty years almost.  Off and on.  What we have, anyway.  They’re yours, if you want them.  For whatever the hell they’re worth.”

He finds his breath.  “Thank you.”

“That’s what you think,” Slipher answers.

In another minute he is alone, in the middle of the night, still blurry with liquor.  His mouth tastes sweetly of raw spirits.  A single bulb burns in a wire cage.  At the musty back of the vault he slides down the box marked Mar 17  – 88, taking its weight into his arms.  The box is covered with dust.  He sets it on the library table, blows off the dust, tips back the cardboard lid.

Inside sits a gray paper folder, the first of a stack.  He teases his handkerchief out of his back pocket and wipes his hands on it to remove the dust, then lifts the folder out.  He sets the folder on the table.  He opens it.

Someone’s purposeful black pen, guided by a ruler, has drawn a straight line across the top of the page.  Above this line, in a curling hand, is written Jupiter – July 1793 – Maddox Obsv. Then comes a long fall of trigonometry that represents the attempt of someone in 1888 to determine whether Jupiter was where it was supposed to be, when observed doing what it was doing in 1793.

He follows the calculation with his forefinger.

Turns the page.

He follows.

He sinks into the chair, turns another page.

Another.

In an hour he has gone halfway through the folder.  At some point as though he is sitting an exam he unclasps his Santos from his wrist and sets it before him.  He has a pencil in his hand now and is making notes on the inside cover of the gray folder.  The computer, whoever she was, has not made any errors, not that Alan can find, anyway.  He admires the fine, womanly hand that falls with a sort of chiming inerrancy down the page, page after page, as she turns one, then another observation this way and that through the method of least squares, and he can’t help it, he thinks of Florence, thinks of this sort of exact feminine facility, a sort of equivalent to stitching, in that it is invisible, but an error anywhere is enough to ruin the entire effort.

All these boxes and boxes.

He looks out the door of the vault, down the empty basement corridor.  If Dick were to discover him here he would give him the business for sure.  Alan has a vision of him loping into view, trailing his fingers on the vaulted cement ceiling.

But Dick is gone.

A queer feeling comes over him that the ninth planet is truly out there somewhere.  Something in the cavey, monasterial feel of this basement tells him this.  It is a sort of sum of these variant parts: the madman who ordered all these numbers to be set down, the years of painstaking feminine labor in the walnut-paneled computer room on Halward Street in Cambridge, all the girls with their inkwells and linen blotters, plus this desert air, this piney hilltop, the crazy Injuns in their reeking blankets, their blackfly horsewagons, and the airstrip at the edge of town, the train dragging its lighted cars away.

All of it adds up somehow to a sweet little mysterious certainty.

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