Pluto's shrinking status proves disappointing to discoverer's widow at 93

August 25, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

"I feel like I lost my job. I feel like I've been fired," Patricia Tombaugh says with a nervous laugh.

No one on Earth was more directly affected by the news that Pluto had been busted in rank to a "minor" planet by the International Astonomical Union: Her late husband, Clyde, discovered that gigantic, orbiting ice ball on Feb. 18, 1930.

Patricia, age 93, admits the Tombaughs prided themselves on being "Pluto's papa and mama." Suddenly, their beloved child doesn't walk quite so tall in the eyes of the scientific community.

"It's confusing. I'm disappointed, of course," she says. "I just try to maintain my dignity in some way. I'm not too surprised, however. I know what the issues are."

Mostly, this demotion is about the ever-onward march of science. In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh was a 24-year-old, self-taught astronomer working at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. He had grown up in rural Kansas, peeping at the heavens through a nine-inch telescope made from scratch: grinding his own lens, pulling parts from broken farm equipment and his father's 1910 Buick. Such was the state of astronomy back then.

At Lowell, Tombaugh pored over thousands of time-lapse photographs taken of the night sky. He eventually detected a moving pinpoint of light. That speck was destined to become Pluto, the ninth and most distant planet of the solar system.

Tombaugh's eureka moment earned him a scholarship to the University of Kansas. There, he got his bachelor's and master's degrees - and stars in his eyes. He met Patricia Eaton and they married in 1934.

"He loved his astronomy. I had a degree in philosophy," she recalls. "We had a great time talking, Clyde and I."

He spent 13 years at Lowell Observatory, then shortly after World War II joined a research team at the government's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In 1955, the Tombaughs moved to Las Cruces, N.M., where Clyde started the astronomy program at New Mexico State University. He would maintain ties with the school for more than 40 years, right up until his death in 1997 at 90.

"Clyde inspired students. He was a teacher above everything else," says Wilbur Sitze, a retired aerospace engineer who had Tombaugh as a professor and, many years later, married his daughter, Annette.

Sitze remembers getting his first glimpse of Mars sometime around 1958. In Tombaugh's backyard. Through Tombaugh's old, handmade telescope. The reclassification of Pluto, he says, can't undo a lifetime of work.

"Keep in mind it's the prototype of a minor class of planets. That's not such a bad place to be either."

Clyde Tombaugh mapped vast stretches of the night sky. He discovered scores of asteroids, comets and star clusters. He broke with convention and (correctly, it turns out) concluded that galaxies aren't evenly distributed throughout the universe.

"He did say in his last days that Pluto got in the way of other work he had done," says Patricia. "It was pretty much Pluto, Pluto, Pluto."

Who knows? Maybe as Pluto's stature shrinks, Clyde Tombaugh's reputation will grow. After all, there are few certainties in the ever-changing cosmos. Stars explode. Galaxies expand. Truth molts. The theory of relativity may be ... relative.

"It's the way of science," Patricia Tombaugh says philosophically. "I think even Einstein's having a hard time right now."

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