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If you like Clyde Tombaugh's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Sylvia Earle,
Daniel Goldin,
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Donna Shirley

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

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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: 6 / 8)

Discoverer of Planet Pluto

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  Clyde Tombaugh

You've mentioned two books you read often as a young person: the Bible and the encyclopedia. How did you reconcile the religious beliefs of the Bible with the scientific reading you were doing?

Clyde Tombaugh: Unfortunately, a lot of the concepts in the Bible are based on ancient mythology that doesn't fit the findings of science. So I had to choose one or the other. I regard it as a history in a way, valuable for teaching morals and all of that, but for teaching science, it was no good. It was misleading. That was the attitude I took.

What did that do for your religious conviction?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: I had a drastic revision in my religion during the Scopes trial in Tennessee. That was 1925. I was 19 then, and I became thoroughly disillusioned with what I considered ignorant, fundamentalist points of view. Our minister would rant and rave against science every Sunday, all summer long. I got thoroughly disgusted with that kind of stupidity. I never got over that. I'm not a Christian at all. I cannot reconcile myself to that point of view. I used to be, but I abandoned it.

You must be a spiritual man.

Clyde Tombaugh: Well I am. I think there's a supreme power behind the whole thing, an intelligence. Look at all of the instincts of nature, both animals and plants, the very ingenious ways they survive. If you cut yourself, you don't have to think about it. Something there heals it, stops the bleeding, puts the scab on. There's something marvelous and miraculous there.

How does a pansy, for example, select the ingredients from soil to get the right colors for the flower? Now there's a great miracle. I think there's a supreme power behind all of this. I see it in nature.

It seems that when people seek contact with a supreme power, they look upward. You spent so much of your life looking up to the skies. Is there any relationship there?

Clyde Tombaugh: Well, of course, heaven is no place in the space out there. I don't know where it would be. There's one place where I think they could say where hell is, that's on the planet Venus because the temperature's 900 degrees and no water and it rains sulfuric acid and the atmosphere is 90 times more oppressive than here, so that's a good place for hell. It's just the next planet over.

You've said that as a young person you were kind of a loner. What advice would you give a young person who also feels different and isolated?

Clyde Tombaugh: I have a lot of sympathy for young people because I realize how disturbed I was. How would I deal with life in the future? What would I do for a living? These things worried me considerably. In fact, I could see failure down the road for me. That wasn't very encouraging. But I never gave up hope of trying to be something.

What advice would you give someone with similar feelings to yours?

Clyde Tombaugh: Never give up, be industrious as possible, acquire all the knowledge you can get, be honest, and hope for the future. You have to have hope. Otherwise, I don't think you could handle it. Of course, you have to have both luck and pluck to make it. Some people are not that lucky even though they try and one cannot help but feel sorry for them because they tried and met defeat. Defeat's a terrible feeling.

Tell me about some of the defeats in your life.

Clyde Tombaugh: When I realized I couldn't work at Lowell Observatory anymore, that was kind of a defeat for me. They were short of funds. There were a lot of byproduct materials I wanted to work up after I got done with the scanning. I discovered new star clusters, clusters of galaxies and one great super cluster of galaxies as byproducts. Hundreds and hundreds of new variable stars, hundreds of new asteroids, two comets. I had learned a lot about the distribution of galaxies in the sky. I counted over 29,000 galaxies on my plates and I found that what I saw did not agree with Hubble's view of the galaxies at all. I had arguments with him about that. It turned out I was right, as everybody knows now. If I had stayed, I would have worked all this out a decade earlier than when it was finally worked out as byproducts of the planet search.

It worked out for the best anyway. The best thing that ever happened was to leave there. I had quite a rewarding life and I got all kinds of honors for my work in science. I also have a prized medal: Pioneer of the White Sands Missile Range.

So you look at what you did accomplish and not what you didn't.

Clyde Tombaugh: It was my philosophy all through life. I never had much sense of jealousy.

How does criticism affect you?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: Well, I never really got much of it. I remember one time at the White Sands Missile Range. They fired the bumper, the two stage rocket which was successful finally after four tries. I could see that the next thing around the corner was the age of multiple stage rockets, and artificial satellites. So I suggested to the various people, we ought to think about how we are going to instrument these things. Oh, he says, you are wasting your time, we are just going to deal with Honest Johns and Nike Missiles and stuff like that. They kind of reprimanded me. Well, a few years later, the Space Age came in, they came around and apologized to me. That was a bit satisfactory, I tell you. They apologized and said, "You saw what we didn't see." That's imagination and curiosity. You can see ahead to what is likely to happen.

You're a scientist, but I want to ask you about intuition, instinct, gut feeling. How does that fit in?

Clyde Tombaugh: I think it's part of being a scientist. You have to have an alertness to deal with the unexpected. The history of science is filled with almost-made discoveries, missed by a hairline because they didn't have the alertness to realize they had a discovery.

Take the case of the French astronomer Lalande in 1795. He was making a star catalog and he was a very careful observer. He would sketch the position of stars in the field, and he'd go back a few nights later to recheck and make sure he hadn't made a mistake. Well he happened to have Neptune in one field on the eighth of May, 1795, and then two nights later he went back and it was in the same place, but in a different position. He thought he'd made an error in the position. He was actually witnessing the movement of planet Neptune and didn't have the alertness to realize that he'd found a planet. He couldn't have had a better clue. Where was his imagination? I find a lot of scientists do not have much imagination and they do not make big discoveries because they miss 'em.

How do they lose their imagination?

Clyde Tombaugh: I don't think they ever had it. There are some people who are just plodders and work right along doing routine stuff and they seem to like it. It's all they're capable of doing, but they do it well. Others have the imagination to see the unknown and interpret the unexpected, so you have these various different kinds of scientists.

How did you develop you own scientific imagination?

Clyde Tombaugh: I was always looking ahead. I used to do all kinds of things for entertainment. When I was young, we had no radio, no TV. We were 30 miles from the public library, out in the sticks in Western Kansas, and so I'd do arithmetic exercises.

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
For example, I'd calculate how many kernels of wheat were in 10,000 bushels of grain, just for the heck of it, to see how big the number was. I'd even calculate how many cubic inches there were in the super giant star, Betelgeuse. It's one followed by 39 ciphers. I can still read the number. By this, I learned to get a grasp of the meaning of numbers. I see nowadays in media, they say million when they mean billion and vice versa. They don't seem to understand the difference between a million and a billion. It's a terrific difference, a thousand fold difference, and yet they don't seem to have the intuition to realize that that's the wrong answer.

Also, the thing that really pains me is the ignorance of geography among people today. It is astounding. When you have a lot of people who cannot identify the United States on a world map, that's really bad. There's no excuse for that kind of ignorance. People travel a lot, why don't they learn some geography? It's interesting. Then you know where you're going.

See, I value knowledge very highly and it never hurts you. In fact, it gets you jobs, if you have knowledge. A lot of people aren't willing to take that attitude or take the trouble to learn. It does require effort to learn and if you're too lazy to think, well then you've got to learn.

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