Enchanting People of New Mexico - Clyde Tombaugh

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Episode 10 - Clyde Tombaugh

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Hit subscribe to automatically get these Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical and Cultural New Mexico Podcasts. Wednesdays, today, we celebrate people important to our area.

One of the most interesting people of New Mexico is Clyde Tombaugh, who during his lifetime was usually introduced as the discoverer of the ninth planet in our solar system, Pluto. Not that you or I will spend much time looking in the night sky, “Oh there is Pluto.” Nope, Pluto is about three billion miles away from the sun so even with a powerful telescope it is not easily seen.

Now this story about Clyde Tombaugh is partially personal since I took an Astronomy Class from Clyde Tombaugh in 1972 and interviewed him from 1985 to 1987 many times for a history project. He was a delight as a professor and was very kind with his time and observations about history. More about that in a minute.

Let’s do a little background. Clyde William Tombaugh was born in 1906 in Kansas. He was always interested in telescopes and the sky above. He wanted to go to college but his farm parents had a bad moment when a hailstorm destroyed their crops one year so there wasn’t the money to do so. He had five siblings and again was fascinated by telescopes, so he scrounged parts from the farm and ground the lenses for two telescopes. The first one was a learning failure but the second was useful, so he made detailed sketches of Mars which he sent in 1928 to the Lowell Observatory outside Flagstaff, Arizona. They were impressed by his meticulous detail.

Percival Lowell was an author, mathematician and astronomer who first wrote about the canals on Mars and then proclaimed that there was a ninth planet in our solar system which was affecting the orbits of Neptune and Uranus. He found the money to start the Lowell Observatory in 1915 but then died the next year. Now the truth is that Pluto is too small to have had any measurable effect on Neptune and Uranus. But the hunt was on, and it was a brute force way of finding Planet X as it was known before discovery. Clyde Tombaugh was a very hard and diligent worker who in the winter when the air was dry and there were no clouds would photograph with a very large format camera sections of the sky. He did so in the very cold observatory since they couldn’t turn the heat on while photographing the sky. They already had decided that Planet X might be, where Lowell thought it was, so they were searching a vast area for Planet X, the ninth planet in our solar system. A group of researchers decided that if there was a planet beyond Uranus then in a one-week period of time it would move a very specific amount on a negative so that taking a shot of the sky a week apart and putting the two negatives, each very large in a blink comparer would allow for a measurement of exactly a certain distance if it was a planet where they thought it would be.

So thousands upon thousands of dots in the negatives each day were put through the blink comparer and Clyde systematically looked for an object that moved an exact amount. He had to systematically look at each dot, then find that dot on the other week later negative and measure it to see if and how much it moved in a week’s time.

If it moved too little or too much, it wasn’t Planet X. Tombaugh started using the Lowell Observatory’s 13-inch telescope on April 6, 1929. He took photographs of the same section of the sky a week apart and then used a machine, a blink comparator to see the shift of each dot over the week. Most didn’t shift and some shifted wildly. He was looking for an exact amount of movement. He spent hours upon hours looking at the thousands upon thousands of dots in each large negative. It took a huge amount of time and concentration to go dot by dot day in and day out while at night in the freezing weather he took the large plate negatives, developed each shot, and then lined each pair up to be measured.

Then on February 18, 1930, as Clyde Tombaugh was diligently working on the dots it happened. On two shots from the previous month, one of the dots was exactly the right distance a week later. It was Planet X. After an exhaustive checking of the dots and numbers it was finally decided by the staff of the observatory that Planet X had been found. But until the staff of the observatory really looked carefully, they would not say a word to the outside world. But the confirmatory photographs and data confirmed the find and on March 13, 1930, the observatory telegraphed to the Harvard College Observatory the news which was then released worldwide. They couldn’t just call the planet X, so a name had to come. Since Percival Lowell was instrumental in this find they wanted to use P and L. The name Pluto was selected since it is the Roman God of the underworld and again the P and L were a tribute.

Michael Swickard, Enchanting People of New Mexico. Each Wednesday we do a podcast on people who are special to New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get these podcasts.

We are talking about Clyde Tombaugh who by hours and hours of work discovered the Planet. He told me an interesting story that he wrote in an essay in the 1950s. It seems from the data that the astronomers had that Pluto was large, perhaps twice as big as Jupiter which until then was the largest of the eight planets. Then a year or so later with more observations they decided that Pluto was a bit smaller, it was the same size as Jupiter. A couple years later, they thought it was half the size as Jupiter, then down and down in size it went until in the early 50s it was smaller than the Earth. Tombaugh with his very robust humor wrote that by using mathematics he realized that Pluto in the year 1978 by the linear regression of getting smaller and smaller, well Pluto in 1978 was going to weigh nothing. Very funny. Tombaugh worked at the observatory looking for a tenth planet, but one was never found. However, he found many small objects and about 800 asteroids.

Tombaugh worked at the Lowell Observatory until he was drafted for World War Two where he taught naval navigation at Northern Arizona University. After the war ended, he was not able to return to the Lowell Observatory due to the observatory not having funding, so he went to work at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces and then also ended up teaching astronomy, well, starting the Astronomy Department at New Mexico State University and inspiring a number of very important astronomers at NMSU. He retired from teaching in 1973, just after I had him for an astronomy class and remained very active in astronomy while living in Las Cruces until his death at age 90 in 1997.

There is a Tombaugh Elementary School near to where Clyde Tombaugh lived in Mesilla Park. It is my understanding that a student was introduced to Clyde Tombaugh. Hed asked, “Why were you named after our school?” It made Clyde laugh. He was quite a punster and really enjoyed humor.

I always smile to remember when I took a course, Astronomy 110 from Professor Tombaugh and we were sitting there in the class awaiting this giant of the astronomy world. He came in, walked to the lectern, This is Astronomy 110, I’m Clyde Tombaugh. Then he paused and our pens were on our paper since it seemed that he was going to say something important. He said, the first thing, then he paused while we wrote that down, that you must do, another pause, is never try to star gaze, another pause, under a streetlight. We all looked up at once and he laughed. Relax he told us. Let us have some fun with astronomy. And I have had lots of fun with astronomy, especially when I interviewed Clyde Tombaugh and he always had interesting things to say. He explained that Pluto the planet and Pluto Mickey Mouse’s dog were connected because in 1930 Walt Disney wanted to celebrate finding the planet. So Pluto the dog was introduced. In 1941 the newly created element plutonium was named after Plute as was the tradition of naming elements after newly discovered planet which is where we got Uranium.

Yes, Pluto was demoted from major one of nine planets to less than a major planet. It happened after Clyde Tombaugh had passed but I feel confident he would not have been anywhere as upset as some Las Cruces residents at the change in 2006. I shrugged and fondly remember the effect Clyde Tombaugh had on the Astronomy world, especially later in life. I am thankful that I got to sit with him a number of times and enjoy his sense of astronomy. He was a very enchanting person in our area and I feel blessed he came to our little slice of paradice.

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Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: michael@freshchileco.com The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise. Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

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