Remembering Pluto – and the Kansas Farm Boy Who Discovered It

The sky is tremendous theater in Kansas.

Perhaps that is why I was not all that surprised to learn that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, lived as a teen and young adult on his family’s farm near Burdett, only a few dozen miles from our own farm.

Free of smog or the light pollution of metropolitan areas, the nighttime sky in central Kansas bursts with stars. I could read a book using the light reflected from a full moon. I even dubbed them “reader’s moons.”

Like Tombaugh, I was fascinated by the planets as a child, even painstakingly drawing pictures of the planets and volunteering to give a talk about the solar system in elementary school. My teacher was delighted. My classmates had to think I was crazy: Who volunteers to do extra schoolwork?

Unlike Tombaugh, however, I did not build several telescopes – including their mirrors – with my own hands to study the stars. He even hand-dug a deep trench for his telescopes so his views would not be disturbed by air currents or dramatic swings in temperature.

He drew pictures of Jupiter and Mars from his observations and sent them to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, which offered him a job. He discovered Pluto in 1930 at the age of 24, eventually went to college, and carved out a distinguished career in astronomy.

During my career as a journalist, I was able to interview him on a couple of occasions. He was unfailingly polite, his answers direct – almost to the point of being taciturn. I was not sure if that was a reflection of his rural Kansas roots or his life as a scientist. The truth is it was probably a combination of both.

Less than a decade after Tombaugh died at the age of 90, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. In my heart, however, Pluto will always be the ninth planet, the outlier that helps hold our solar system together.

Given my interest in astronomy, you might think it would be natural for me to want to write science fiction or at least fantasy novels. But I have never been tempted to do that, because I always considered the real thing to be far more interesting.

clyde tombaugh

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