July 2010

“An extraordinary, sprawling tale…utterly mesmerising….breathtaking, triumphant…a towering achievement.”


It’s hard to believe, but Clyde Tombaugh really did make his own telescope essentially from scratch.  In an effort to try to understand how this was actually done, I hunted down old reference guides that would make the process plain.  These images are from 1001 Celestial Wonders, published in 1931.  For a complete account of the step-by-step procedure, and for a description of the materials Clyde might have made use of, go here.

Somehow, when you grind two glass blanks against one another, one goes convex and the other goes concave.  I honestly don’t entirely understand this myself, even after reading about it extensively.  But it works.

In the novel, Clyde does a fair amount of this work, especially early on, as he’s making the telescope that will get him, eventually, to Flagstaff and Lowell Observatory.

Clyde’s grinding post must have looked very much like this.  In the stained glass window rendering here, you can see all these elements.

I’ve seen them myself – the long lists of planetary names proposed by excited Americans in March 1930:

Splendor!  Pax!  Ariel!  Salacia!  Athenia!  Nuevo!  Utopia!  Maximum! Tantalus! Perseus!

And – yes: Pluto.

In fact, Vesto Slipher and the Lowell Observatory staff liked “Minerva” for the new planet, but a prominent asteroid with that label already existed.  Next on their own list of preferences?  Pluto.  As it happened, Pluto was also the second most popular name with the public, going by a tally of those dozens of folks who had been sending eager telegrams since the moment the discovery was announced.

So how did Venetia Burney somehow get credit for Pluto? It’s a cute story, sure. The little girl named a planet!  And she was quick off the mark, no doubt about it – having read the news on the morning of March 14, she (being young, British, and keen) struck upon “Pluto” and mentioned it to her grandfather across the breakfast table.  Her grandfather was a gent with a spectacular moniker of his own – Falconer Madan (!) — and just happened to be a retired librarian from the Bodleian Library.  Old Man Madan mentioned his granddaughter’s proposal to his chum Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford — and Turner eventually sent a telegram to Flagstaff suggesting it.

More than a month went by before the planet was officially named.  Vesto Slipher (speaking of spectacular monikers) and his staff consulted with one another about what to call the new planet.  And — well, who better to give credit to than to a girl whose great uncle Henry Madan had named the moons of Mars – Phobos and Deimos?

But the credit could have gone to any number of people.  Safe to say, the staff at Lowell knew they had a good story on their hands, and didn’t mind doing a little gilding of the lily in the person of Venetia Burney.

I mean, she’s called Venetia – it’s just too good to be true.  (And it almost certainly is.)

Ms. Burney – later Venetia Phair – died April 30, 2009.  Of Pluto’s demotion from planetary status, she said, “At my age, I’ve been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”

The asteroid 6235 Burney bears her handle, as does an instrument on the New Horizons spacecraft, destined to arrive in Pluto’s orbit in 2015.

Constance Lowell, widow of Percival Lowell, was an odd bird.  Her most obvious oddity was her contention that she was blind when in fact she was not.  As I discovered, this could get her into trouble.

While doing research for the novel, I was lucky enough to interview Henry Giclas.  Giclas, who was 95 when I interviewed him, called himself a “hill rat”.  Born and raised in Flagstaff, he spent time with Clyde Tombaugh during Clyde’s tenure at the Observatory (on Mars Hill), and later went on to become an astronomer in his own right.

Henry Giclas at the Pluto telescope

It was from Henry Giclas that I learned where you might have bought bootleg liquor in Flagstaff during Prohibition — in “Mexicantown”, on the other side of the railroad tracks.  I interviewed Giclas in his house in Flagstaff while he sat in an overstuffed armchair, watched TV, and fussed with his hearing aid while his daughter (as I remember it) served tea and cookies.

It was there that Henry Giclas told me the story of Constance Lowell and the birthday cake.

Constance, pretending to be blind, went everywhere with a lady’s maid.  One day, this maid decided to bake Constance a cake; she put candles on it to be festive.  She brought it into the dining room of the “Baronial Mansion” (the ramshackle house the Lowells kept on Mars Hill), with the candles lit.  Whereupon Constance, evidently overcome with satisfaction — someone hadat last seen what she deserved from life — said, “Oh, I see you baked me a cake!”

But of course, she couldn’t see the cake, supposedly; and everyone had to pretend as though they hadn’t heard anything.

After Henry Giclas told me that story, he shot me a strange, discomfited look.  He didn’t really know who I was, after all, and now he’d told me this story.  What would I do with it?  And — well, I couldn’t help but imagine the irascible, powerful, contemptuous Constance Lowell hovering around him, too, still a figure worthy of dread after all those years.

In the archives of Lowell Observatory, under the excellent guidance of archivist Antoinette Beiser, I came across this typewritten memo – in its original, a few pages long.  While it’s not clear who composed this note, someone has penciled “VM?” in the upper margin — Vesto M. Slipher, director of the Observatory.

In this memo, Slipher (probably) is acknowledging that there was some delay in the announcement of the discovery of Planet X (later Pluto).  Clyde Tombaugh found the retrograding trans-Neptunian object on February 18, 1930.  Lowell Observatory didn’t announce their findings until March 13.  This happened to be Percival Lowell’s birthday — as well as, through one of this story’s many cosmically-arranged coincidences, the date on which Uranus was first discovered.

Aside from the pleasing timing, why the delay?

As I’ve written here before, the astronomers at Lowell weren’t sure what they had.  The object was too small to be the gas giant they’d been expecting.  But their mathematics seemed to indicate that a gas giant was indeed what was out there to discover; only a very large planet could perturb the orbits of Uranus and Neptune in the way that was posited.  So they were understandably puzzled to have found a very small object in just the place that Lowell’s mathematics suggested a gas giant would be.

But what’s of interest to me in this memo is the phrase “In view of the unusual character of the discovery into which the institition [sic] and its founder had given so much in the way of effort and time we had to be content to allow the momentary gusts of emotion to blow over…”

One way of reading this goes: we’d been looking for the thing for so long, and under such pressure to find something, that we wanted to make sure we had something genuine before we said anything.

That’s a legitimate reason to hesitate, of course.

But I think, too, that it’s fair to read those three weeks as a pregnant pause, during which the astronomers decided whether to call this object Planet X or not — that is, whether the accumulated pressures of history and institutional expectation outweighed the obvious problems with the object.  It wasn’t what they were expecting.

So – should they gamble?  Should they go ahead and try to call this object Planet X?

Had it been a gas giant — had they found what they’d been expecting — I bet they would have announced it the next morning.  Instead, over the next three weeks, they took countless photographs of the object, hoping to solve their conundrum.  They never did.  And in the end, of course, they didn’t call it Planet X when they finally announced it.  They just called it a “solar system object apparently trans-Neptunian.”  It was the press that called it Planet X, and so a planet was born.

If the guys at Restoration Hardware want my opinion, I’d like to suggest that no household is complete without a kickass Martian lamp!  Glass sides consisting of Lowellian Martian canal drawings, yes indeed.  From the context it looks like this hung in the Baronial Mansion – known jocularly to the denizens of Mars Hill as “the B.M.”

One wonders what became of this particular item.  Anybody checked ebay?

Rhea and Epimetheus are two of Saturn’s dozens of moons — Rhea is the larger body visible here.  The Cassini orbiter which took this photograph arrived at Saturn in 2004, and is expected to continue operating until at least 2017.

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