CNN (and everybody else in the world) is telling the same old story today, under the headline 12 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT PLUTO:

CNN is a big dumdum

I mean, it’s true that she suggested it, but so did about a billion other people.  Why does Venetia get the credit?  Well, I have a theory.

Here, for the record, are some letters and telegrams from just a few of the other folks who had the same idea.

March 17, 1930
Dr. V.M. Slipher
Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Dear Sir;

I have read in the paper the account of the finding of the new planet and being interested I would like to suggest the name of Pluto.  I chose this name because I believe this planet is as important as Neptune or Jupiter and deserves the name of the third brother.

Yours very truly,
Ruth van Sickle
Barringer High School


73FN B 23






4 AU D 32 NL



1157 AM


Indianapolis, Ind.
Mar. 16, ’30

Mr. Roger Lowell Putnam,
Dear Sir;

I suggest the name “Pluto” for the new Planet. “Atlas” is inappropriate as are others I have heard. The major planets are all named for the ancient gods. Saturn, the father of the gods, has the most distinctive world and two of his three sons are honored, Jupiter and Neptune, now in all fairness let us give the other, Pluto, his due.

As Pluto was Lord of the dark region of the dead, so this planet so far from the source of light should receive his name. Do not break the beautiful system and catalogue the new world by a name which has no real reason in it and will mean nothing to the future generations. Let us not do something for which we will have to apologize in future.

Geo. P. Kebbe

Amazing photograph of Clyde (standing, mustache) out on the farm in Burdett, Kansas.  Click the image to get the full-sized version.

Clyde Tombaugh down on the farm

Writing about Clyde’s days at home was one of the great pleasures, and challenges, of Percival’s Planet.

Yeah.  Constance Lowell had a lot of bad ideas, but her bad ideas for naming the newly discovered Planet X were…the baddest of all.  Here’s her letter to Lowell Observatory director Vesto Slipher, in February 1930:

Dr. Slipher—

Roger Putnam has written me about the intensely interesting observation that you are experiencing—that it may be Planet X I pray.  Mr. Putnam asked me if I had any thoughts about the name.  He said he had thought of “Diana”.

But no.  If it is not to be Lowell or Percival my choice is Zeus.

Zeus being the father of Aries—Aries being identified with Mars—it seemed appropriate—and Dr. Lowell was born in the sign of Aries—it is Dr. Lowell’s planet after all his years of looking for it.  And it is only right that it was his to name after himself and now my right as he is dead and gone, in the Air of the Universe—and he was like a Zeus—

Sin yrs
Const Lowell

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 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.)

Here we go, folks.

A small portion of Tombaugh’s ashes are on board the New Horizons probe.

Clyde, you’re almost there.


Hence the pizza!  Nice of the NY Times Op-Ed page to allow me a little room to celebrate what would have been Clyde Tombaugh’s 105th birthday.

No doubt Percival Lowell (1855-1916) is worth a novel in his own right.  Though he’s been dead nearly a century now, his life has to strike us as almost theatrically staged, tinged with madness, loss and obsession — and aligned in some mysterious fashion with the hidden workings of the universe.

The Lowell family is legendary in Massachusetts; with the Cabots, Lodges, Forbeses and Adamses they are (or were) the Brahminest of the Brahmins, producing inventors, entrepreneurs, novelists, abolitionists, architects, etc.  His brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943) became president of Harvard; his sister, the poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  Percy himself studied mathematics at Harvard under Benjamin Peirce, graduating with distinction.  In 1893, having encountered the work of astronomer Camille Flammarion — and finding his way thereby to the wonders of Mars via a “spiritist” avenue — Lowell turned his attention to the nighttime sky.

He was an intent, imaginative observer; his hundreds of drawings of the Martian surface attest to his many long nights at the objective.  We now understand that the “canals” he saw were in fact moving patterns of dust and sand, varying seasonally with the changing of the Martian weather.  (And if you’d like a tour of the Martian landscape today, you can scoot on over to Google Mars.  Too cool.)  Still, Lowell’s drawings retain their evocative power.  In their unusual proportions, odd angularity, and the patterned combination of irregular nodes and slender tendrils, we may see an echo of the spidery elegance of the Art Nouveau movement exerting some imaginative influence:

And I know I can’t be the only one to see the Paris Metro design as peculiarly Martian, or at least H.G. Wellsian…

with the defining Art Nouveau monsters being the terrifying Martian tripods!

Anyway, Lowell’s 1895 volume Mars makes for interesting reading today; in it, we can see Lowell struggling to make sense of what he saw — and struggling to restrain his own excitement about what he thought he saw — which was, to his mind, evidence of an advanced civilization at work, effortlessly altering the surface of its home planet. It is, I think, a hopeful gaze that Lowell turned to Mars; and surely his mix of imagination and dedication also characterized his later search for Planet X.

Safe to say, Percival Lowell began with a hypothesis that excited him — that Martians existed, that Planet X was out there — and worked through his evidence, hoping keenly he would find what he wanted to see, occasionally tempering his hope with caution:

But look!  Here’s some evidence that the Martians are actually paying some attention. That, or the rubber gloves don’t fit AT ALL at Google Books.

(What can be going on here?)

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.

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 Tombaughs were farmers of wheat and oats; together with other farmers in Pawnee County, they were part owners of a great steam tractor and thresher, like the one here below (I couldn’t find a picture of the Tombaughs farming).  Clyde Tombaugh was responsible for some of the maintenance on the thresher, and some of the same equipment he used for grinding his lenses he also employed in the sharpening of the thresher’s many blades.  The meticulous, umcomplaining work he did around the farm would surely be of help to him later, when he was poring over the endless photographs of the night sky, looking for the one moving speck that would be Planet X.


The steam tractor provides the power for the great whirring thresher belts while you rake the cut wheat and gather it into your arms and throw it into the thesher mouth, to be separated grain from chaff.  After an hour of standing beside the roaring machines, gathering the cut wheat into your arms, bending and standing, raking and kneeling, you stop hearing the engine, you stop thinking of hearing as something you do, and then all at once the noise emerges again into your consciousness, full of its many constituent parts, a rumble and a liquid pounding and a million high whinnying sounds from the belts and other things besides.  You feel it in your sternum in a strangely personal way.

A fascinating post here braiding together the lives of Clyde Tombaugh, Venetia Burney, and the unusually named Plato Chan.  Born on March 14, 1930, he was supposed to be named Pluto, as it happens — and he would come to his own early fame, as Peter Sieruta points out.  Influences and perturbations indeed!

Plato (Pluto) Chan, winner of the Caldecott at age 12

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.

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.)

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.

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