June 2010


Yes, it’s the same book – just a different title in the UK (and other Commonwealth countries)…

The excellent Dr. Jennifer Rohn has a piece in last week’s Nature (subscription only, unfortunately) graphing the remarkable rise of “Lab Lit” – a genre she has defined as “novels that contain scientists as central characters plying their trade” (and she kindly includes Percival’s Planet in this classification).  The genre has experienced quite a climb in percentage terms, as she demonstrates.

Dr. Rohn is the founder and editor of lablit.com, which I highly recommend for its thoughtful commentary.  As I’ve said elsewhere, I do want to portray the scientific life accurately, so it’s most gratifying to be included in this article – thanks, doc, for the nice mention!

The New York Times has a thoughtful story about the continuing search for new exoplanets – especially earthlike bodies.   We’ve come a long way from Clyde Tombaugh and the blink comparator, haven’t we?

from the Times:

“On Tuesday, astronomers operating NASA’s Kepler spacecraft will release a list of about 350 stars newly suspected of harboring planets, including five systems with multiple candidate planets. That data could dramatically swell the inventory of alien worlds, which now stands at 461.”

Interestingly, Kepler’s search method isn’t that far from what Clyde and the comparator were up to – only Kepler takes one image every six seconds and analyzes it digitally, looking for stars that dim – even minutely – as their planets pass in front of them.

Check out the NASA Kepler mission here.

If you’re on the road this summer – specifically, if you’re up in Aroostook County, in northern Maine – check out this immense scale model of the solar system. The model – with 1 mile equal to 1 AU – runs 40 miles along Route 1 between the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the end of I-95. I’m not saying go out of your way to check it out – but should you happen to be in the neighborhood…here’s Venus at the Budget Traveler Motor Inn.

At forty miles from the sun, Pluto is a one-inch ball at the Houlton Information Center.   This, more than any other model I’ve seen, really conveys how big space is — and how empty.

According to what I can find, the astronomer Kenneth Newman arrived at Lowell Observatory shortly after the discovery of Planet X in 1930.  At any rate, he begins to publish articles and to appear in Observatory photographs around 1932.  It’s nice to think of Clyde having someone to work closely with — someone around his own age, I mean.  And it’s a little eerie to see Newman here in this photograph, seemingly playing the part that the fictional character Alan Barber does in Percival’s Planet.

It strikes me that astronomy in that era — with its long periods of nocturnal solitude — could be awfully lonely labor; I imagine Clyde found it a relief to have somebody else around.


This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit Lowell Observatory again – this time to shoot some footage for what’s known these days as a “book trailer” — your basic movie trailer but — yes — for a book. Antoinette Beiser and Kevin Schindler were our guides through the old spaces and, once again, offered not only their customary spectacular hospitality but a number of useful historical pointers. Kevin Strehlow of Phoenix played Clyde Tombaugh; Travis Marsala of NAU’s theater program filled the role of the fictional character Alan Barber.  Stay tuned for the final cut!

We even managed to (sort of) reproduce the book cover inside the Pluto dome – thanks to the estimable Chris Crockett for the loan of the excellent hat!

And here’s yours truly – getting some audio from the comparator.  (Click.  Click.  Click.  Click.)