Long Distance Voyager

By | July 20, 2015

(Optional soundtrack to this post.)

History was made last week, when a space probe the size of a piano flew by and took the first close-up photographs of the last of the “classic nine” planets of the Solar System. I am speaking of course of Pluto, and while astronomy may be fairly far afield of what we usually post here on the Digital Nirvana (even by the standards of what I usually post here), the New Horizons flyby last week was really the end of a story that began well over a century ago. The discovery of Pluto itself illustrates what I deem to be the three forces essential to the success of any successful endeavor, be it scientific discovery or a business: a dream, dogged perseverance, and—last but not least—luck, or at the very least being the right place at the right time.

We’re often told to follow our dreams, and it’s the pursuit of those dreams that leads to ultimate success. Sometimes, the pursuit of a dream can lead to obsession, which sounds like a bad thing—just ask the crew of the Pequod and a certain white whale—but sometimes crazy obsessions can yield real, non-crazy fruit.

Most people reading this are likely familiar with the meaning and origin of the word “quixotic.” Derived from the name of Cervantes’ titular hero Don Quixote, it means “foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals; marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.” This week, we mark a major scientific milestone, the origin of which began as a quixotic, obsessive, perhaps even downright barmy quest, the success of which was all the more remarkable for being based almost entirely on false premises and incorrect information. And for one man, spending lonely nights in an unheated dome high above the Arizona desert, it could very well have been an interplanetary snipe hunt.

Our story begins with one basic error: a mistranslation.

Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835–1910) was an Italian astronomer who, in 1877, made the first detailed surface maps of Mars, aided by advances in telescopes, as well as the fact that in that year Mars was unusually close to the Earth. Among the surface features Schiaparelli saw and drew were crisscrossing lines that he called canali, which in Italian means “channels” or “grooves.” (Canali is not to be confused with cannoli, although finding cannoli on Mars would sure be something.) The word canali was inaccurately translated into English as “canals,” not just for the obvious reason (it looks like it’s a cognate, and in come contexts can in fact mean “canals”), but because the Suez Canal, the engineering marvel of its day, had been completed a few years earlier and people still had “canal fever.” The word “canal” connotes a manmade (or, perhaps, Martian-made) waterway, and canal fever soon gave way to Mars fever. Speculation about life on Mars was rife, and would lead to one of the earliest science-fiction classics, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898).

Mars mania also afflicted a man named Percival Lowell, scion of a wealthy New England family (after which Lowell, Mass., was named). After graduating Harvard, Lowell worked in his family’s textile business for a while, then spent several years traveling the world in various diplomatic capacities, lingering in Japan and writing about its culture and customs. He had always been an astronomy enthusiast, and was intrigued by Schiaparelli’s Martian canali. He returned to the U.S. in 1893 and began his quest to gain a better understanding of Mars. He founded Lowell Observatory on a mountaintop just outside Flagstaff, Ariz., and, making his own observations, saw the same canali that Schiaparelli had seen. He made many intricate drawings of Mars, and wrote several books, and became one of the primary proponents of the belief that intelligent life lived on the Red Planet.

Unfortunately, the scientific community thought he was a bit of a kook, and Lowell Observatory was not seen as a “real” research institution, at least not for a while.

Then, in 1906, Lowell got another celestial bee in his bonnet.

Slight rewind. In 1781, William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, noted for being the butt, as it were, of juvenile puns, but also as the first planet to be discovered since ancient times. So, it was a pretty big deal. Astronomers began to wonder, well, what else could be out there? In 1821, Alexis Bouvard published tables of Uranus’ orbit—or, that is, what should be its orbit. However, later observations found that Uranus was not where it was supposed to be, as if there were another large body nearby whose gravitational field was perturbing the orbit of Uranus. A large body like…another planet? Teams of astronomers scanned the skies and, in 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle in Berlin—working from predicted positions by fellow astronomer Urbain Le Verrier in France—discovered Neptune.

Astronomers soon worked out the masses and orbits of our new celestial neighbors—except… something was wrong. Uranus, and now Neptune, didn’t move the way the math said they should. Hence, the logical question: was there yet another planet out there? (What they didn’t know—this was the 19th century remember—was that they got the mass of Neptune wrong, and that, coupled with later findings, makes the next chapter in this tale all the more remarkable.) By the turn of the century, finding this new planet became the new obsession.

Re-enter Lowell. Just like celestial billiards, this new planet knocked Mars from his attention. In 1906, he dedicated Lowell Observatory to the task of finding what he called “Planet X.” Alas, Lowell died in 1916 of a stroke, not realizing that his observatory actually had photographed what he was looking for.

Although Lowell passed on, the search for Planet X lived on in the dogged persistence of a Kansas farm boy.

Clyde Tombaugh was born in 1906, the same year that Lowell began his quixotic quest to find Planet X. Born on the family farm, his dreams of going to college were scuppered when a hailstorm destroyed his family’s crops. But he was still smitten with astronomy and when a Sears telescope proved inadequate, he built his own. Observing Jupiter and Mars, he sent drawings to the Lowell Observatory which, in 1929, hired him. As a new hire, he was given the typical low-man-on-the-totem-pole job: searching for Planet X. (Since Lowell’s death, finding it was no longer a priority at the observatory.) The 24-year-old Tombaugh attached a camera to a telescope and took a series of photographic plates of the night sky in the general vicinity of where Planet X was believed to be. Each photo was taken one to two weeks apart. He would then place two separate plates into a device called a “blink comparometer” which essentially toggled between two different pictures. The goal was to see which of the many many white dots had moved (stars are fixed, planets move about). It was a long, tedious, laborious process but on February 18, 1930, Tombaugh announced he had found it, a new planet.

This new planet went nameless for a while—Lowell’s window favored Zeus—until Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old British girl whose father had connections in the astronomical community, suggested “Pluto,” not after the Disney dog but rather the Roman God of the Underworld (aka Hades in Greek mythology). The directors of Lowell University rather liked the idea—especially in that the name Pluto starts with Percival Lowell’s initials. Although Pluto was demoted from planethood in 2006—it’s now considered a dwarf planet (when I toured Lowell University in 2003 they were having none of this “trans-Neptunian object” crap)—very little was known about the last of the “classic nine” planets most of us grew up with. Until now.

Last week, NASA’s New Horizons probe made a historic flyby of the tiny planet, and for the past few weeks has been sending back an increasingly extraordinary set of photographs of Pluto and its moon Charon. As of this writing, the best is yet to come.

Although New Horizons won’t be orbiting or landing on Pluto (Pluto is so small, and thus its gravitational force so weak, that in order for the probe to decelerate enough for orbital insertion or landing it would have needed to carry more fuel than it could have feasibly launched with), the flyby will still glean enough information to keep astronomers and “Plutocrats” busy for years. And even though Clyde Tombaugh passed away in 1997, New Horizons is carrying some of his ashes.

Lowell had one crazy dream that eventually panned out, and it was his, and later Tombaugh’s, dogged persistence that allowed that dream to pan out. And, since the “evidence” that led to the search for Planet X was wrong, it also was luck of the most astronomical sort.



Britt, Robert Roy, “Mars: A History of False Impressions,” Space.com, September 26, 2005, http://www.space.com/1583-mars-history-false-impressions.html.

Drake, Nadia, “Pluto at Last,” National Geographic, July 2015, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/pluto/drake-text.

“Percival Lowell,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percival_Lowell, last modified on July 16, 2015, accessed July 17, 2015.

“Pluto,” Wikipdia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluto#Discovery, last modified on July 20, 2015, accessed July 20, 2015.

“Clyde Tombaugh,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clyde_Tombaugh, last modified on July 17, 2015, accessed July 17, 2015.


Share this post