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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.

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!

Alan Boyle, author of The Case for Pluto, makes an eloquent and moving argument for the importance of thinking of Pluto — and its trans-Neptunian brethren — as full-fledged worlds in their own right.  Conceiving of them as worthy of the culturally-weighted term “planet” makes a difference in how we see our own position in the solar system:

“Never again can Pluto be the ninth planet. Or the littlest planet. Or the most distant planet. But does that make Pluto a non-planet? No way. Even before Pluto was discovered, the solar system was divided into two classes of planets: the rocky worlds like Earth, and the gas giants beyond. Pluto has pointed the way to the solar system’s third great class of planets, no less important than the other two…

“Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, says there could be many thousands of icy worlds out on the solar system’s rim–and hundreds of them could well qualify as dwarf planets. Over the long run, that will almost certainly change the way we look at our own place in the universe. And what’s so bad about that?

“‘The original view, until 10 or 15 years ago, was that we had four Earth-like terrestrial planets, four gas giants, and the misfit Pluto. But the new view is four terrestrial planets, four gas giants, and hundreds of Plutos,'” Stern says. “‘It’s jarring, because Pluto’s no longer the misfit. It’s the Earth-like planets that are the misfits.'”

I didn’t know until very recently about the kooky theories surrounding Planet X — not in 1930, I mean, but right now, today. While I won’t link to any of the real loonies directly, a quick read of the Wikipedia entry on the Niburu collision should give you a sense of what kinds of lunacy people are capable of committing to. (In sum, the belief involves a NASA conspiracy to cover up the existence of a giant 10th planet on a collision course with Earth.) The most strenuous advocates of this belief appear to be either deeply delusional — I mean, mentally ill — or outright charlatans.  Charlatanism is entertaining, but untreated mental illness ain’t.

Happily, the forces of good are hard at work.  The excellent Phil Plait, of Bad Astronomy fame, is on the case against the Planet X conspiracists.  Of course, demonstrating logical fallacies, misconceptions, misunderstandings, and the like to a group of conspiracy theorists is sort of like describing soccer to your cats: they might appear to be listening, but their behavior never seems to change.

But someone’s got to stand up to the kooks.  One more hurrah for the scientists among us!  And as Phil Plait says:

Percival’s Planet gets a nice mention on Lab Lit (as very much opposed to Lad Lit) — a list of novels that feature scientists as central characters.  Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Rohn, founder of Lab Lit and author of the much-praised novel Experimental Heart, for including the book!

Dr. Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London and founder and editor of LabLit.com.

This kind of thing means a lot to me.  I like to know that I haven’t misrepresented the scientific endeavor entirely.  My father, Peter Byers, is a medical geneticist at the University of Washington; my first novel takes place (in large measure) in a genetics laboratory.  In high school I worked occasional afternoons in my father’s lab, responding to reprint requests or photocopying articles from the depths of the library – this was in the dark ages before the Internet – so I was able to witness the workings of his lab from up close, and to observe (in the idle, uncomprehending manner of a teenage nonscientist) the bland make-do surface of daily laboratory life, the not-so-new-any-longer machines, the labels hastily written in black marker on blue tape, the coffeemaker always on and smelling sort of bad — and I loved it all, the long corridors of similar labs down the E wing of the Health Sciences building, the sense that  every laboratory interconnected with others around the country and around the world, and the sense that all that effort had been organized by good people in the service of research that might, one day, end a certain variety of human suffering.

Peter Byers, MD

I knew I wanted to write about that sort of work, and though it took me a while to figure out how much it meant to me exactly, the impressive daily enterprise that science is, in full, has always struck me as one of the great human things in the world to be optimistic about.  Done well and completely, science is a communal effort, performed in the service of understanding the universe more fully, with an often decades-long time scale.  If our species ends up making it on Earth in the long run, it’ll be thanks to those folks who have been undertaking this work for so long.  C’mon guys!  I don’t want to move to Mars!  I just finished planting my tomatoes.

Lo, we are many.

Check out the Peoria Illinoisian’s feelings on Pluto here.  And Dan Sharp’s review of the kids’ book Dwarf Planets here.  National Geographic puts its two cents forward here.   And some thoughts from the UK here.

Just the tip of the iceberg, of course.  And for all your Pluto and Pluto-accessory related items, let me suggest Cafe Press’ Pluto store!  I happen to have one of these puppies on the back of my car:

Not really sure what people make of it, but I know what I mean, anyway!

You can’t keep a good planet down!  The move to reinstate Pluto’s planetary status is gaining steam.  Here’s one of many entertaining and well-informed blogs on the subject.   Take that, Agent Mike Brown!

(That’s us on the left in the sunglasses.)