Friday, August 19, 2011

The kid from Kansas

"... all at once, he is full of dread for the future and he's thinking, Oh no, what have I done?" (from Percival's Planet by Michael Byers, 2010, p. 353)

These imaginary thoughts are attributed to Clyde Tombaugh, the kid from Kansas. It is imagined he thought them in 1930 upon his discovery of the planet Pluto. Clyde, the kid from Kansas. The kid without a college degree, without a credit to his name. The kid who, in his spare time, built lenses and mirror he ground himself while helping on his family farm. The kid who impressed one person at Lowell Observatory with his fine work and was hired sight unseen. Clyde, of all employees at Lowell Observatory, found Pluto. This kid from Kansas is now full of dread  for the future (p. 353).

Widow Percival (Constance) Lowell did not like Clyde. Mrs. Lowell owned the purse-strings of Lowell Observatory, and only at her command did the Observatory search the skies. Only through her gratitude and monies did the observatory operate. Mrs. Lowell rarely made an appearance at the observatory, and when she did, everyone prepared for it. Mrs Lowell, in her widow costume of solid black (including the hat and veil) would demand the reports of her employees, question them on the search for Planet X, and then leave them with the fear of funding being cut or denied. She ridiculed Clyde Tombaugh, calling him 'Mr. Tom Tom'.

(permission to use this photo granted under GNU Free Documentation License)

And so night after night, Clyde was relegated to taking photographic plates of the skies or comparing his plates by using a blink comparator. And when Clyde matched his new image to one on a plate from a different night/era, he knew something was up. The closer he studied his images and compared his to others, the more assured he became. The more assured he became, the more he dreaded the future. Clyde was not supposed to be the one to find Lowell's Planet X. Clyde, this kid from Kansas.

I am captivated by Clyde Tombaugh. He found something that wasn't his. He lost something that wasn't his, too. When Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet, Clyde was already deceased. But Clyde's widow, Patricia Tombaugh, says Clyde would have understood. The science is there to back up Pluto's dwarfness. And Clyde would see that and accept the difference.
There is something about Clyde, this kid from Kansas. Clyde Tombaugh just wanted to search the skies; he just wanted to do his job. He didn't want to play the games with the egos, with Widow Lowell, or with fame. He just wanted to find 'things', whether planets or comets. He wanted to search the skies.

"What am I supposed to do," he whispers. No one else in the world alive has done what he has done. No one in the whole world he can ask for advice. (p. 403)
I'm only Clyde.

And what Clyde found is that there is always solace, somewhere. Tonight, look up into the skies. Look at the stars. The same stars that Clyde Tombaugh searched through 90 years ago. The same stars that Percival Lowell hunted through. And Galileo. And thousands of others, millions of others.

Solace. Clyde Tombaugh. And you.


Kathy said...

Tombaugh was certainly the fitting person to follow in Lowell's footsteps. I remember reading a book about Lowell years ago and how he discovered the skies above Flagstaff as one of the perfect places on earth to view the planet Mars. I believe he actually carried his telescope on a wagon behind a team of mules into Mexico on occasion. I think he would have been proud of Clyde.

Thérèse said...

So nicely told!
Even our own children have to relearn naming the planets...

Rohrerbot said...

Great post. Some in the science community are holding off on calling Pluto a dwarf from a recent lecture I went he may be right about his planet label after all. I can't wait to see what's out there past Pluto! Thank you for sharing that story.

Banjo52 said...

Nice story. We all love an underdog, and it never hurts to be reminded to look up, especially if we've been feeling . . . important.

altadenahiker said...

What a story. And told with such sensitivity.

Here's a poem from Joseph Auslander. Maybe it fits, it seems so to me:

Home Bound

The moon is a wavering rim where one fish slips,
The water makes a quietness of sound;
Night is an anchoring of many ships

There are strange tunnelers in the dark, and whirs
Of wings that die, and hairy spiders spin
The silence into nets, and tenanters
Move softly in.

I step on shadows riding through the grass,
And feel the night lean cool against my face;
And challenged by the sentinel of space,
I pass."

Elaine said...

I enjoyed Clyde's story. There are so many people like him, "only Clyde,"who have contributed so much to man's understanding of the world and universe.