Clyde Tombaugh


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.

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.

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.

thresher

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

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