old glories


Yesterday we got the first surface resolution of Charon, Pluto’s largest (and first discovered) moon. Pluto and Charon

(Thanks as always to the excellent io9.com for this composite picture.)

Charon wasn’t discovered until 1978 — almost fifty years after Clyde Tombaugh first spotted Pluto’s infinitesimal speck on those big glass plates he’d exposed during hour-long sessions at the 13-inch telescope atop Mars Hill.  Here’s the Zeiss Blink Comparator he used to compare one plate with another.  (Formerly housed in the beautiful Saturn Dome room at Lowell Observatory, the comparator has now been moved to the Smithsonian Institution.)

It’s hard to convey exactly how tiny the speck of Pluto is on those plates — but boy, is it tiny.  So small, in fact, that Pluto could easily have gone undiscovered for decades.  Only a man like Clyde Tombaugh — diligent, devoted, impossibly obsessive — could have found it.  Read more about Clyde’s homemade telescope here, and more about Clyde generally here.

And if you’re so inclined, you can check out my novel about Clyde Tombaugh and the discovery of Pluto here.  Order one here today!  (End of commercial.)

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Percival Lowell and his secretary, Wrexie Louise Leonard, were constant companions from 1893.  They exchanged fond letters; they each had a bedroom in the Baronial Mansion on Mars Hill; and together they tended the garden behind the Clark Observatory, proud of the watermelons and wary of the invading rabbits – calling them “Jack Rabbit, Esqr.”

But, as William Putnam says in The Explorers of Mars Hill, “proper Bostonians just did not marry their secretaries.”  Instead, Percival Lowell married the irascible Constance Savage Keith in 1908.  What exactly compelled him to choose Constance over any of the other options is unknown; it is well known, however, that Constance disliked the long-established Wrexie, believing her a rival for Percy’s affections.

And maybe she was.  Percival Lowell asked Wrexie to stay on as his secretary; remarkably, she did.  And when Lowell died in 1916, Wrexie sat down and composed a tribute to the man she had accompanied for nearly twenty years.

The book’s epigraph demonstrates the devotion Wrexie felt for Percy.  As William Putnam helpfully points out, hidden in the epigraph’s several lines are tributes to Lowell himself and two of his most faithful “computers” at Harvard College Observatory — the doughty Elizabeth Langdon Williams and John Kenneth McDonald — as well as the two women who made up the binary stars of the great astronomer’s romantic life.

Preambient light = Percival Lowell
Waning, lingers long = Wrexie Louise Leonard
Ere lost within = Elizabeth Langdon Williams
Just, kind, masterful = John Kenneth McDonald
Life’s sweet constant = Lowell Savage Constance

Could it possibly be a coincidence that only Constance Savage Lowell’s  initials are reversed — Constance being, as William Putnam notes, “the one who almost succeeded in completely negating [Lowell’s] life’s work?”  Might Wrexie have been extracting, here, a very quiet kind of of revenge?

In any case, it’s a fitting tribute to a man whose own initials – PL – are embedded in the very name of the planet whose discovery he made possible. If it was love, it was a love contained and tamed – or so it would appear – but one that insisted, in this smallest of ways, on proclaiming itself.

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?

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.)


Ah, the sweetness of certainty!  This spread appeared — appropriately enough! — on page X1 of the New York Times on Decmber 9,1906, when Lowell was — if not “recognised as the greatest authority” on the Red Planet, certainly the only one with his own Observatory from which to study it.

I just love the design of this piece (do check it out in full at the link above, it’s a gloriously giant PDF).  The Martian globe seems particularly evocative when seen from below:

and why not throw a shepherd in there, sure!

And as for the content…


Well, The New York Times has been wrong about bigger things, I guess.

Clyde here at least gets equal billing with Percival Lowell. Notice that in June 1930 astronomers are still puzzling out Pluto’s size. They’re getting closer — rather than being 1200 times the size of Earth, now it’s “judged to be the same size as earth.”  (Today we know its mean radius to be 0.18 of Earth.)  Estimates of Pluto’s size decreased over the course of the 20th century; in 1976, astronomers determined that Pluto’s surface featured methane ice, which meant that the planet’s albedo was higher than had been theretofore suspected — which, in turn, meant the planet was smaller than it appeared.

The discovery of Pluto’s moon, Charon, in 1978, allowed for very accurate measurements of Pluto’s mass — now determined to be about 0.2% of Earth’s.

Here’s the larger version of that iconic picture of Lowell at his 24″ Clark.  Notice the handsome chair.  As his descendents say, “Percy brought a lot of Yankee with him to Flagstaff.”

If you visit Lowell Observatory you can see this telescope still in operation — in fact, you can look through it!  Check out Lowell’s visiting hours and directions here.

So, okay, when you fly in from Planet X and land outside town in 1951, what you need is 1) a bubble helmet 2) pajamas 3) a GIANT voice translator and 4) comfy green gardening gloves.

Oh, also, MAKE SURE YOU LEAVE GRANDMA IN THE SHIP! She tends to wander.

A horrible monstrous creature with a head as big as two men put together... a skin with the shine of a new shilling...eyes no better than a dead codfish!

As IMDB has it:

“…an agent of Planet X, peacefully disposed, has landed to make preparations for further landings of X-people when the planet reaches its closest proximity to Earth.  The Man from Planet X, using a mesmeric ray, captures the scientist, his daughter, the assistant and several townspeople.

This one is even more hilariously subliminal.  Check out that “rocket”!  Whoopsie!

And guess who that is – yes, it’s Margaret Field, mother of Sally Field! Looks like The Strange Man from Planet X likes her…he really really likes her!

Margaret Field, with dignity restored




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