Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pluto And Beyond #1: Clyde Tombaugh

In the big picture of my life—the overall scheme of things—I won’t remember the year 2007 as the year that I first visited a Starbucks. I’ll remember 2007 as the year that I first observed Uranus and Neptune.

(Of course, I’ll also remember Starbucks. In fact, I’ll remember going to three Starbucks. And I’ll remember not going to two others.)

But for me the outer solar system is an adventure that began almost forty years earlier. My very first encounter with astronomy was about planet hunting beyond Neptune.

When I was in fourth grade my school had a program where students could get out of class for an hour a day if they spent that hour reading in the library. You could read anything you wanted, and the only catch was that at the end of the week you had to do a book report by standing in front of the fifth grade class and summarizing what you’d read.

For me it was the best of both worlds—a chance to read and a chance to perform.

Oddly, only three students ever took advantage of this ticket out of class. Me, a friend of mine named Alicia and a friend of hers named Leona. Alicia grew up to be a teacher. Leona—the second girl I ever had a crush on [after Rhonda Reed moved away], one of the smartest and most beautiful girls in our grammar school—according to neighborhood gossip and legend grew up to run away from home during her high school years, become a groupie of some kind and vanish.

So I got out of class to read books. Back then I was hooked on biographies. I just started at one end of the juvenile biography section and started working my through. Eventually I got to the T’s and there I found Clyde Tombaugh. I don’t remember the author or the exact title of the book I found, but it was a book similar to “Clyde Tombaugh and the Search for Planet X,” by Margaret Wetterer. The book—and the story of Clyde Tombaugh—changed my life.

Other kids had football heroes (those were the days of Roger Staubauch and Fran Tarkenton) or rock and roll heroes (those were the days of the Monkees and the Doors and oh yeah the Beatles). But instantly Clyde Tombaugh became my first hero.

At the start of the Twentieth Century, Tombaugh was a farm boy from Illinois (I was a city boy from Illinois!) who moved to Kansas. When Tombaugh was twelve his uncle let him look through a small telescope and Tombaugh instantly fell in love with astronomy. He read every astronomy book he could borrow from school, local libraries and relatives. He couldn’t afford college, but after high school he still loved astronomy so he built himself two reasonably good telescopes and mounts. He knew from his reading that professional astronomers kept nightly logs of their observations and included sketches so Tombaugh maintained a journal and made well-crafted sketches of what he saw.

After two or three years, Tombaugh still couldn’t afford college but his love for astronomy was still strong and he wondered if it was possible for a high school graduate to have a career in the sciences. He sent some pages from his observing journal to the Lowell Observatory and asked if they had any suggestions for how he could pursue a career in astronomy.

As amazing luck would have it, the Lowell Observatory was about to use a brand new telescope to search for a planet beyond Neptune and they wanted a semi-professional astronomer for the job because they wanted someone who could concentrate on the one task and not have to manage a larger career.

The astronomers at the Lowell Observatory were impressed with Tombaugh’s journal and offered him the job.

Tombaugh worked almost every night (some nights were cloudy) taking pictures, developing pictures and manually checking (with mechanical aids) photographs of the sky looking for points of light that move against the backdrop of fixed stars.

After working almost every night (and often much of the day) for more than a year, Tombaugh discovered a speck of light that moved and was not previously known. Further checking revealed that he had, in fact, discovered an unknown planet—he’d discovered Pluto.

Interestingly, after confirming Tombaugh’s discovery, the professional astronomers at the Lowell Observatory went back and re-checked some of their own work and discovered that they themselves had imaged Pluto, but they hadn’t been sufficiently diligent in their comparisons to other photographs to realize what they’d seen. Only the intense concentration of the “semi-pro” had been up to the task.

Tombaugh was twenty-four years old when he discovered Pluto.

Two years later Tombaugh went off to college. He got married and lived happily ever after as a real professional astronomer. Tombaugh died in 1997, at 91 years of age.

Very cool guy. Very cool life. Very cool story.


Tombaugh’s early life planted the seed in my mind that there could be disadvantages to being a professional. It took many years for that seed to germinate and flower.

I fell in love with astronomy after reading about Tombaugh’s life. Very quickly, I learned about a guy named Fred Hoyle and Hoyle became my second hero—a world-class astrophysicist who also wrote great science fiction. I’d always known I wanted to be a writer. Fred Hoyle provided a kind of prototype for how a person could write and also fit in with a ‘larger’ world. In grade school, that became my ‘life goal:’ Become a scientist and also a writer.

Over the years, however, and concluding during a strange week in a Ball State University library, I began to realize that my favorite writers—Richard Brautigan, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison—never acquired a college degree. And I began to realize that ‘well educated’ writers that I liked very much—John Gardner, Michael Crichton, Trevanian—wrote with a ‘voice’ that was distinctly different from writers who’d avoided academia. It’s a strange, obscure difference, but it’s a difference and it frightened me. I began to think about the differences between professionals and semi-professionals and I decided that I felt myself much more in tune with semi-pros than with pros. And that’s when I dropped out to write.

In some ways I’ve been very successful. For most of my life I’ve had great ‘day jobs’ that paid well, kept me comfortable and gave me lots of time to write. I’ve got half a dozen novel manuscripts and dozens of short story manuscripts. I’m very satisfied with how my writer’s ‘voice’ has developed.

I’ve never been published, however. Although editors couldn’t be more positive about my manuscripts and always encourage me to send them more of my work, I’ve never—yet!—appeared in print. That’s not good. And, at my age, the lack of a college degree appears to have a greater impact than when I was younger. That’s not good, either.

But life is about trade offs and in general I’m very happy with all the trade offs I’ve made.

The bottom line is I still have manuscripts out on the desks of various editors and ANY DAY NOW I could find an acceptance letter in my mail box. Then—like Hannah Montana!—I’ll have the best of both worlds: My real voice and a real career.

Any day now . . .


Tomorrow: Pluto And Beyond #2: The Ecliptic

No comments: