persons


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

CA CAMBRIDGE MASS 546P MAR 15 1930
DR V M SLIPHER

LOWELL OBSERVATORY FLAGSTAFF ARIZ

SUGGEST YOU CALL NEW PLANET PLUTO AFTER THE GOD OF UNDERWORLD THE SON OF SATURN AND ONLY REMAINING BROTHER OF JUPITER AND NEPTUNE

NOSTRADAMUS
419P

*

4 AU D 32 NL
WORCESTER MASS MAR 15
V M SLIPHER

LOWELL OBSERVATORY, FLAGSTAFF AZ

APPROPRIATE NAME FOR PLANET WOULD BE PLUTO THE VIEWLESS WHO MOVED HITHER AND YON DARK UNSEEN MYSTERIOUS STOP SEE GAYLEYS CLASSIC MYTHS STOP VULCAN SEEMS INAPPROPRIATE NAME FOR COLDEST PLANET

H L BLOOD
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.

Respfly
Geo. P. Kebbe

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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 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.)

Here we go, folks.

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

Clyde, you’re almost there.

7-8-15_pluto_color_new_nasa-jhuapl-swri-tn

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?)

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