In that same theater 92 years later, at the I Heart Pluto festival celebrating the discovery, Alden Tombaugh reflected on his father’s legacy of inspiration.
When he talks about his father, it’s not the discovery of Pluto that he remembers the most, it’s his father’s love for sharing astronomy with others, especially children.
“It makes me excited for the future to think that people are still interested in this process and getting involved in planetary science or any type of astronomy and the scientific method itself,” said Tombaugh, a former banker and entrepreneur. .
This same discovery that brought Flagstaff and the Tombaugh family astronomical fame has provided Lowell Observatory with a tradition they hope to carry on for generations to come by celebrating one of the city’s defining scientific moments.
Kevin Schindler, a historian at the Lowell Observatory since 2015, hopes young children who see what happened there will be inspired by the work of Clyde Tombaugh, who died in 1997.
Inspire a new generation
Kids like 11-year-old Cameron Dick, who is interested in black holes and theoretical physics. He lives in a city where science is in the backyard and events like the I Heart Pluto festival provide an outlet for new generations of Arizonans interested in science.
Aaron Dick, Cameron’s father, said he hopes his children enjoy “science and learning about research and how to do research”.
In Lowell, just a mile from the theatre, visitors follow a path of descriptive panels and busts, named the Pluto Walk, leading to the room where Clyde Tombaugh spent hours peering into the skies.
Schindler said the discovery of Pluto — even though Pluto is now designated a dwarf planet — shaped Flagstaff and northern Arizona.
“Flagstaff and even Arizona, you could say, is the home of Pluto, and I think there’s a lot of pride that goes with that,” he said. “If you’re from Flagstaff, you’re from the house of Pluto, and you know, that’s important both scientifically but also culturally, because the community embraces that heritage.”
When Schindler speaks of Tombaugh’s discovery, it is with admiration and awe that it still moves young people nearly a century later.
“He was 24 when he discovered this planet,” Schindler said, “and so when he was younger he spent a lot of nights alone on the farm, building his own telescopes. He just found it interesting, so I think it’s inspiring to think that anyone could achieve this.
He gave her the moon
James Christy, who was an astronomer at the US Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, was among the celebrants of I Heart Pluto at the Orpheum on February 18.
In 1978, nearly half a century after Tombaugh’s discovery, Christy noticed a gap on some of the slides depicting Pluto – a gap that would later be revealed to be Pluto’s largest moon.
The astronomer highlighted the most important part of his story: how he chose the name of the moon.
Christy wanted to combine Char, short for Charlene, his wife’s name, with “on”, an ending used for newly discovered particles. But because the planets and their moons are traditionally named after characters from Greek and Roman mythology, Christy told his wife that Charon wouldn’t work. But a quick look in a dictionary saved the day: Charon was the ferryman of souls on the Styx River in Greek mythology.
Where is Pluto today?
In 2006, astronomers at the International Astronomical Union meeting voted to downgrade Pluto to dwarf status, arguing that it did not meet the union’s criteria to be a full-size planet because it is not gravitationally dominant – known in astronomy circles as “cleaning up the neighborhood” around its orbit.
This decision was widely debated, especially at the Lowell Observatory.
The decision, Schindler said, was made on the last day of the union meeting, when fewer members were in attendance.
“That’s just not how science is done,” he said. “Science is by acclamation, not by vote, but by evidence.”