TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Widow of Tombaugh 'Shook Up' by Decision

Widow of Tombaugh 'Shook Up' by Decision

Tim Korte, AP (
Sat, 26 Aug 2006 14:29:58 -0500

By TIM KORTE, Associated Press Writer

The widow of the astronomer who discovered Pluto 76 years ago said
Thursday she was frustrated by the decision to strip it of its
planetary status, but she added that Clyde Tombaugh would have

"I'm not heartbroken. I'm just shook up," Patricia Tombaugh, 93, said
in a telephone interview from her home in Las Cruces.

Clyde Tombaugh was 24 when he discovered Pluto while working at Lowell
Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1930. He spent months meticulously
examining images of the sky, looking for a planet observatory founder
Percival Lowell theorized was affecting the orbit of Uranus. Lowell
was wrong -- Pluto is too small to affect giant Neptune's orbit --
but Tombaugh found it anyway.

Tombaugh, who died in 1997, was the only person in the Western
Hemisphere to have discovered a planet in our solar system until
Thursday, when the International Astronomical Union separated it from
the eight "classical planets" and lumped it in with two similarly
sized "dwarf planets."

Tombaugh had fought off other attempts to relegate Pluto, but his
widow said this time he probably would have endorsed the change, now
that other planetary objects have been discovered in the Kuiper Belt,
the belt of comets on the edge of the solar system where Pluto

"He was a scientist. He would understand they had a real problem when
they start finding several of these things flying around the place,"
Patricia Tombaugh said.

She added that her husband had been resigned to the change.

"He knew it was on the way," she said. "Before he died, they were
going around and around. Of course, he was disappointed. After 75
years of seeing it one way, who wouldn't be?"

Planetary astronomers at Lowell Observatory expressed disappointment.
Director Bob Millis said he preferred a rejected proposal that would
have added three planets to the solar system instead of dropping

Closing the door to additional planetary discoveries is "not exactly
motivational to young planetary scientists and astronomers," Millis

At New Mexico State University, where Clyde Tombaugh worked from
1955-73 and founded the research astronomy department, the news about
Pluto was received somewhat glumly.

"To come up with a new classification shows science is not
static. It's good to show that to the world," said Jim Murphy, an
associate professor and department head. "I suppose our reaction is
more emotional. I don't want anyone to think anything less of the
discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930."

Tombaugh's legacy is visible across Las Cruces, where an observatory,
a campus street and an elementary school bear his name.

Murphy said Tombaugh's discovery was ahead of its time because it took
60 years for stronger telescopes to locate another object with an
unusual orbit like Pluto's, and 73 years before scientists discovered
a bigger object in the area.

He said the declaration won't change Pluto's importance to science.

"Pluto didn't cease to exist," Murphy said. "It didn't lose or gain
any atoms. Its physical characteristics haven't changed a bit because
of this. It already was perceived to be a member of a larger group of

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: When our power came back on Saturday
morning, the Independence High School cable TV station had a program
on interviewing one of the astronomy teachers who noted that "all the
textbooks we have used in my memory have included Pluto as one of
'our' planets. (Flashback showing a classroom scene, with a textbook
open to pages discussing Pluto.) I guess new textbooks will revise all
that." PAT]

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