Two stories about the planet, Pluto
by Stan Griffin


For almost 70 years, schoolchildren around the world have learned that our solar system consists of Earth and eight other planets. Last year, however, the prestigious International Astronomical Union (the world's leading organization in the study of stars and planets) held discussions about the smallest planet: Pluto.

Because of its size and its "erratic orbit," it was reported that an I. A. U. bureau, the Planetary Systems Sciences Division, was considering re-classifying Pluto as either a "Trans-Neptunian Object" or a "Minor Planet."

There was immediate reaction from various sources, " ... a brewing cosmic storm among scientists and stargazers ..." Mrs. Clyde Tombaugh, widow of Pluto's discoverer, said: "Children love that little planet ... that (downgrading Pluto) is rather sad." A friend of Tombaugh's, a university physics professor, said: "If Pluto is 'demoted,' I'm kind of glad he's not around to see it." (He died in 1997.) And children at a school in Tombaugh's home town of Streator (STREET-er), Illinois, under direction of their teacher, wrote letters of protest about the rumored change in status.

Streator is located in northern Illinois, 90 miles southwest of Chicago. It was incorporated in 1868 (38 years before Tombaugh was born there). It began as a coal mining community. As it grew production of glass products became a lasting industry. An Illinois State Historical Marker was erected in 1985 to honor Tombaugh; it stands in Streator City Park, one block from Main Street.

In February, 1999 the I. A. U. issued an official denial that they had ever been contemplating a change in Pluto's designation; Pluto would remain a planet. In celebration of their " ... re-affirmation of Pluto's planetary status ..." the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (where Tombaugh had labored successfully to find the new planet) declared February 20 as "Pluto Day."

Clyde W. Tombaugh was born in Streator on February 4, 1906. (One of my personal connections to this story is that I too was born there; and, like Tombaugh, lived in the area for a number of years.) He developed an early interest in astronomy (study of stars and planets). His uncle had a telescope that he shared with Clyde. The two of them talked about astronomy, and his uncle loaned Clyde books on the subject. Soon the young man could pick out constellations (groups of stars) and some of the planets.

In 1922 when Clyde was 16, his family moved from Illinois to a farm in Kansas. (Another of my personal connections is that approximately 20 years earlier my father's family had moved FROM Kansas TO a farm in the Streator area.) 
In Kansas, Clyde's interest in astronomy flourished. After he graduated from high school in 1925, he wanted to go to college and study astronomy. Unfortunately his parents did not have the money to send him; and in addition, his help was needed on the farm.

Clyde continued to learn by spare-time projects of "home study." He built three telescopes from discarded farm machinery and car parts. With them he was able to make drawings of the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. (Later the Smithsonian Institution asked him to donate one of those telescopes for display. His answer: " ... I was still using it!")
Tombaugh made a decision to leave farming and look for a job in the science field. He sent his best drawings to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was a little surprised in 1929 when they offered him a job even though he had never attended college. Once he started to work, he was assigned to a special project.

Scientists at the observatory had been trying to locate what Percival Lowell called "Planet X." Lowell, a prominent astronomer, had a theory that there was a planet beyond Neptune; but he died (1916) before he was able to find it.
To continue the search, a person was needed to devote full time photographing certain sections of the sky and then comparing them with later pictures of the same area. For this job, Tombaugh used an instrument called a "blink comparator." It was a tedious and sometimes frustrating task, especially when visiting scientists would tell him that he was wasting his time.

Tombaugh persevered; and on February 18, 1930 he found Lowell's "Planet X." (A third of my personal connections to the story is that I was born in Streator that same year, eight months later.)

Scientists at the observatory took some time to confirm Tombaugh's discovery, so it wasn't until March 13 that the official announcement was made. That date was chosen because it was the birthdate of Percival Lowell.
Naming the new planet was not an easy task. Rejecting a number of suggestions including "Percival," "Constance" (Lowell's wife), and "Minerva," the decision was made to call it "Pluto." This idea came from an 11-year- old British girl. It was appropriate for two reasons: (1) Pluto was god of the dark underworld in Greek mythology, and the new planet was so far away from the sun (3,666,200,000 miles) that it was in a very dark location itself; (2) The first two letters of the name--P L--were Percival Lowell's initials.

Tombaugh was only 24 years old when he became famous for finding this new planet. The remainder of his life was full of activity and achievements. 

He finally was able to enroll in college (Kansas University) where he studied astronomy; there he received a master's degree. In 1980, the 50th anniversary of his monumental discovery, the university named their observatory for Tombaugh.

He had a distinguished career as an astronomer, a writer, a teacher, and an inventor. Some of his inventions helped track rockets in space. Other achievements were: confirming the rotation cycle of Mercury; determining the nature of the red spot on Jupiter; and discovering a comet and a supercluster of galaxies as well as a Nova.

Later Tombaugh taught and lectured at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces; in addition, he founded their astronomy department. He was active in teaching well into his 80s.

One of Tombaugh's comments about a change in Pluto's status was: "Somebody wants to cash in on a little publicity, I think, to improve their ego. It's just a small minority. Most people won't agree with them. I think it will just fade away ..." (The supposed attempt to downgrade Pluto in 1998 was not the first such suggestion.)

Mrs. Tombaugh said that the situation bothered him, especially in the months before his death. "But he understood that things change," she said.

Tombaugh died on July 17, 1997 at Las Cruces, New Mexico of congestive heart failure.

The planet Pluto is the smallest of the nine planets of our solar system and the most distant from the sun. Its diameter is 1,430 miles which is 1/5 that of Earth. It is one of the coldest places in the system with lots of frozen nitrogen and methane frost. It is the only planet not yet visited by space probes from Earth. In 1996 the Hubble Telescope took the first detailed photos of its surface.


2006  Update:



Children in a Streator, Illinois elementary school were stunned when their teacher announced recently the International Astronomical Union in Prague, Czechoslovakia (the official astronomical- naming body) had voted to downgrade Pluto from planet to "dwarf planet." At first, they sat in stunned silence, hardly believing their ears. Then they began chattering to each other, making known their outrage at the actions of a group far away from their home in north central Illinois.

About seven years earlier, a rumor circulated that similar action was being considered. At that time, another Streator teacher helped her students write and send off letters of protest. No action was taken by the I. A. U. then. Was it possibly because of such letters?

Identical scenes were repeated in schools all across the U.S., so why do the actions of young people in Streator seem much more personal? Those children often seen an Illinois State Historical Marker standing a block from Main Street in Streator City Park. It was placed there in 1985 to honor astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, the man who first identified Pluto in 1930. Tombaugh was born in Streator on February 4, 1906. He is the only American to discover one of the nine named planets.

Our solar system, according to the I. A. U.’s reclassification is now made up of: eight planets (those we know so well minus Pluto), three "dwarf" planets (Pluto, Ceres, and Xena–also known as UB313), and thousands of "smaller solar system bodies" such as comets and asteroids.

Pluto’s status as planet has long been under fire. Its critics said it: was too small, was too far away, had the " ... weirdest orbit ... elongated and tilted with respect to the other planets and also goes inside the orbit of Neptune ..." They also didn’t like the fact Pluto "isn’t the dominant object in its region of space ..." and that it "resembles a comet."

Others pointed out Pluto had never been the target of an unmanned space vehicle. That is no longer true. Just seven months ago (Jan. 19, 2006), an Atlas V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Air Force Station carrying the "New Horizons" research spacecraft headed for Pluto. It could reach there as early as July, 2015. Its mission is to flyby Pluto and its moon Charon, and to "look around" the Kuiper Belt (region around the sun) which has thousands of comets and other icy objects.

Second- and third-grade teachers have for many years used a "mnemonic" device (a sentence with key words to be memorized) to help students remember names and order of the nine planets. It is:


Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto

Without Plato and its "pizzas," those teachers will need a new sentence.

Tombaugh’s daughter, Annette, says her father is having " ... the last laugh ... (and that he’s) on a great adventure ..." After his death in 1997 at the age of 90, Clyde Tombaugh’s body was cremated. His ashes are now on board New Horizons as it heads for a rendezvous with his "majestic discovery."


Cincinnati Enquirer: "Pluto: Lonely but Loved," Dean Regas, July 19, 2002

"Pluto-Bound Spacecraft Set for Takeoff," Mike Schneider, Jan. 17, 2006

"Pluto Mission Has Ties to Area," Timothy Gaffney, Jan. 20, 2006

"Mercury, Venus. Forget It!" Aug. 25, 2006

Hamilton Journal-News:

"Man Who Discovered Pluto Celebrated As American Folk Hero," Matt Stearns,

Aug. 13, 2006

"Say Goodbye to Pluto; He Lost the Vote," Ercel Eaton, Aug. 27, 2006


© Stan Griffin, 2006


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