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If you like Clyde Tombaugh's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Sylvia Earle,
Daniel Goldin,
John Mather,
Sally Ride,
Alan Shepard and
Donna Shirley

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Clyde Tombaugh in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Cosmos

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Tombaugh Collection
Space Museum

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Clyde Tombaugh
Clyde Tombaugh
Profile of Clyde Tombaugh Biography of Clyde Tombaugh Interview with Clyde Tombaugh Clyde Tombaugh Photo Gallery

Clyde Tombaugh Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Discoverer of Planet Pluto

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  Clyde Tombaugh

Who was the first person you shared your discovery with?

Clyde Tombaugh: I told the assistant director [Dr. Lampland] across the hall from me. This machine makes a clicking noise that could be heard in that part of the building. His office was across the hall and he understood the blinking business, too. He'd been involved in some of the earlier searches. He said, "I heard the clicking suddenly stop and a long silence," and he surmised I had run into something. I was checking out the third plate, and here this poor man was sitting at his desk in terrible suspense, waiting to be invited in for a look. I didn't know about that until he told me later. I showed him the plates, the dates and all and that everything seemed to be consistent with putting the object beyond the orbit of Neptune, and then I went down and told the director. He came up and looked and saw. The Lowell Observatory was changed from that day on. Dr. Slipher was the Director. He had gone through the platal field and missed Pluto, one year earlier, missed it on the plates. He wanted to be the one to find Pluto and he failed. I suppose he probably felt a little chagrined, but he knew that I had something because the aspects were very convincing. Then, they got in touch with the observatory trustee, Lowell's nephew who was living in Massachusetts, and told him about it. It was kept secret for a few weeks so we could follow up and we could learn more about it so we published right about when it came out because we knew that when it was announced, there'd be an avalanche, and there was, exceeded what we expected.

What did the avalanche bring?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: Newspaper reporters, swarming over us like a bunch of bees - interviewers, photographers and everything. We were all a little bit awed about this. We felt overwhelmed.

So there you were, a young man, already a national hero.

Clyde Tombaugh: International. It puts you in a different category real quickly.

How did you live with the success?

Clyde Tombaugh: It took quite a little adjustment because I didn't expect to live that kind of life. I've been making adjustments to it ever since. People want autographs by the thousands. They want to talk to me. I gave a series of lectures for four years, traveling over the United States and Canada to raise money for Tombaugh scholarship for post-docs in astronomy here at New Mexico State University. We raised close to half a million dollars.

When was this?

Clyde Tombaugh: This happened in the last four years.

How did you name it Pluto?

Clyde Tombaugh: Pluto was the god of the underworld. The lower world, I guess it would be better to say -- of Hades. Pluto's out there far from the sun, where sunlight, at the average distance, is only one sixteen-hundredth as bright as on earth. Rather dark. And if you think of Hades as a dimly lighted place or outer darkness, it kind of fits in somewhat with the characteristics of Pluto probably, or of Hades. So it seemed fairly appropriate from that standpoint. And, then when the satellite of Pluto was discovered in 1978 by Christy at the Naval Observatory, he named it Charon because his wife's name was Charlene. Charon was the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to Pluto's realm of Hades. So the satellite name fits in very well with Pluto, you see.

The almanac says that the name came from the initials Percival Lowell.

Clyde Tombaugh: Well, that was another reason, but not the main reason. Of course, they used the first two letters, Percival Lowell. But that was not the main reason. That was somewhat of a coincidence.

How soon did the planet get its name?

Clyde Tombaugh: In April, the following month. We considered many names of course, and Pluto was the final. It was chosen by the staff of the Lowell Observatory. The Lowell Observatory Director proposed to the American Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain that this name be given to the planet, and both bodies accepted it unanimously. So we knew the name would stick.

Where did your life go from there?

Clyde Tombaugh: Soon after the discovery, there was some apprehension that maybe this object I'd found was only an interloper and that the real Planet X was yet to be found, so they wanted me to go on searching. I searched a lot more of the sky and no Planet X ever showed up. It may be out there, still unseen. Then I got a scholarship to the University of Kansas to go to school and I went to school there from 1932 to 1936. But I'd come out every summer and scan more of these plates, and then I went back two years later and got my Master's degree. All that time, I was searching for the Lowell Observatory. I took courses in higher mathematics and physics and the sciences and so on, at the University of Kansas. That's where I met my wife, Patricia.

How did you balance your personal life and this intense curiosity and interest?

Clyde Tombaugh: Well you have to kind of work it out. A person that much interested in science is going to neglect his social life somewhat, but not completely, because that isn't healthy either. So, one has to work it out according to one's own inclinations, how one wants to proportion these things.

Is there a talent you don't have that you've always admired?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: I would like to have been a better master mathematician than I am. I'm not a slouch either, but I would like to have been better. Probably also more skill in administrative work than I had, although I did a lot of it later. I really had a sense of reasonable satisfaction the way things were going. I had no great regrets, and if I had to do it all over again, I don't know that I'd want it much different. So I have that to be thankful for, but it did take a lot of intense dedication to do that.

Did it take as much dedication even after people recognized your ability?

Clyde Tombaugh: Yes. You have to compete with others in the field. Sometimes the competition gets pretty fierce because you're competing for funds or grants to do your work, the financial work.

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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:40 EDT
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