Monday, August 22, 2011

Move over Clyde Tombaugh...Milton L. Humason had first crack at Pluto

Milton L. Humason
August 19th, 1891 to June 18th, 1972

According to Wikipedia...

Due to merest chance, Humason missed discovering Pluto. Eleven years before Clyde Tombaugh, Humason took a set of four photographs in which the image of Pluto appeared.* There is persistent speculation that he missed discovering the planet because it fell on a defect in the photographic plate. This is unlikely given that it appeared in four separate photographs over three different nights.

*Nicholson, Seth B.; Mayall, Nicholas U. (January 1931). "Positions, Orbit, and Mass of Pluto". Astrophysical Journal 73.

Now, Humason was a very interesting person who had no formal education--not even a high school diploma let alone a Ph.D. but yet he worked through the ranks from a floor sweeper to a meticulous Mt. Wilson staff member appointed by George Ellery Hale.

And, it has even been mentioned that "The myth that the expansion of the Universe was discovered by Hubble was first propagated by Humason (1931). The true nature of this discovery turns out to have been both more complex and more interesting."




Laurel Kornfeld said...

Actually, Percival Lowell took images on photographic plates that also showed Pluto, and that was in 1915 and 1916, just before he died. He didn't recognize it as a planet because he was looking for a gas giant, not a small object. It's sad that he died thinking he failed in his quest to find a new planet not knowing that he had succeeded after all!

The fact that neither Humason nor Tombaugh were professional astronomers at the time of their discoveries is an important point that needs to be emphasized over and over again. All too often, professional astronomers look down at amateurs as not being part of their "elite club." The reality is that for centuries, amateur astronomers have been making major discoveries, and they continue to do so.

Mercury said...


Quite correct about the part that amateurs play in science.

The most recent...

"Caroline Moore...rising astronomer"

And I have mentioned others throughout this blog. I'll try to find them.