Sunday, July 31, 2011

Clyde Tombaugh anecdote

The Pluto building.

"Astronomy lover reached for stars"

July 31st, 2011

The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company

MIDWINTER nights on a mountaintop in Flagstaff could freeze an astronomer.

On a January night in 1930, a young man fresh off the farm in Kansas spent night after night alone in a drafty, unheated building on a hill high above this small northern Arizona city.

His passion was astronomy, and he had wanted to attend college to spend a life studying the heavens. But his family couldn't afford college.

As the story of Clyde Tombaugh's beginnings in astronomy unfolded, a docent at the Lowell Observatory painted a picture so chilling that I doubted the happy outcome, even though I knew it in advance.

Instead of the classroom he had wished for, the determined Tombaugh wrote to the Lowell Observatory asking for work.

Something special about his letter caught the eye of astronomers there, and the 23-year-old farm boy was hired. As a handyman.

Soon enough he was entrusted with scientific work, caught on quickly, and found himself making astronomical images as part of a search for a suspected new planet circling the sun.

Night after night, his day job finished, Tombaugh mounted the narrow circular staircase to the dark room where he conducted his celestial search. The photo with this column shows the observatory today, unchanged from the way it was when the young scientist worked there, including the old telescope and mount.

Tombaugh and the story of his "eureka" moment that bone-chilling night in the small observatory is the stuff of astronomical legend now. But some stories of human struggle and triumph are like fine wines--only improving with age.

Tombaugh discovered Pluto--then the outermost planet--and went on to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees in astronomy. He married, had a son and a daughter, taught astronomy and discovered hundreds of asteroids.

He is gone now--he died in 1997, at 90--and so is Percival Lowell, the astronomer who founded, built and developed what was the first research observatory in the American Southwest.

Poor Pluto has been downgraded, its small size relegating it to a new category of "dwarf planet." But that dramatic and crucial moment in the ongoing story of the Lowell Observatory is a source of pride for the institution in the 21st century.

On a beautiful autumn night long ago I had gone to the Lowell, lured by the prospect of a peek through the eyepiece of its huge 24-inch Clark refractor scope. I was not disappointed.

This time was different. I wanted to see the campus in daytime; take the walking tour; hear the history and more.

It seemed like a different place altogether than it did at night. I saw dozens of interesting things this time--buildings, research equipment and, of course, telescopes.

A staff of 30 scientists works on a wide variety of cutting-edge projects now, including the Kepler satellite's current four-year search for planets with star systems.

Research telescopes for the observatory have been moved to a new campus at Anderson Mesa, 12 miles southeast of the original facility. Skies there are darker, enhancing observing capabilities.

In the cosmos, the search never ends. A few days ago a fourth moon was discovered circling Pluto.

Thousands of visitors--some from other parts of the world--pass by 10 minutes south of this observatory, either on Interstate 40 or Old Route 66, many of them headed for the Grand Canyon.

I wonder how many of them know about this quiet campus with its glistening domes, so close by.

1 comment:

Laurel Kornfeld said...

One of my most meaningful aspirations in this life is to someday visit Lowell Observatory, discovery location of my favorite planet.