Welcome, Mr. Tombaugh. We’ve Been Expecting You.

I got on my knees and leaned forward in my seat to get a better view. The teacher, a visitor from the high school, dropped the flaming sheet of notebook paper into the milk bottle and then placed the hardboiled egg on top. The paper flared briefly and then went out. But the egg slowly, as if pushed by an invisible hand, squeezed through the opening and dropped inside the bottle with an audible popping sound. I was amazed. I listened carefully as the teachers explained about air pressure differences. I was ten years old and had been raised in a strict Catholic family. For my entire life, I had tried to understand the invisible forces around me: guardian angels, saints, demons, and Santa Claus, all without success. Here was an invisible force I could understand and master. I was hooked. Science became a passion for me and why I watched with special interest as the New Horizons spacecraft came within 7,800 miles of Pluto’s surface on its way to the Kuiper Belt. Because on board the spacecraft are ashes of a man I once met and worked with, Dr. Clyde Tombaugh.

Many people know Tombaugh as the discoverer of Pluto. But his real story is far more interesting than the sanitized one found on Internet. I met him through his brother-in-law, Dr. James Edson. Dr. Edson was a retired physicist from John Hopkins University. He had also worked for NASA, inventing the tracking telescope and helping Dr. Werner Von Braun transition to life in the U.S. He had bought a house in Woodland Park so he could have an easier time star gazing through homemade telescopes. He volunteered at my elementary school, which is where I met him. He came into my class and did the same kind of “Oh wow” science demonstrations using household items that had hooked me during the Sputnik Era.

Soon after our meeting, I was transferred to another building and grade level. I looked forward to teaching sixth grade but was concerned about the science text. I couldn’t get a grip on how to use it, and so I asked for his help. After reviewing the text, he came to the same conclusion that I had. It was useless for teaching 6th grade science properly, so he offered to help me supplement the health and math books instead. When we studied the nervous system, for example, he came in and did demos and experiments on electricity. It worked out great. My students loved science and had the highest scores on the standardized tests. But what Dr. Edson did best of all was tell stories that made science come alive and helped connect my kids to their ancestors. He stood at the front of the class with his blue suit and tie, hands shaking from Parkinson’s, as he explained how each of them was made of stardust and the product of four million years of success.

One of the stories he told was about his brother-in-law, Dr. Clyde Tombaugh. Clyde grew up in a farmer’s family but had an insatiable curiosity about the night sky. He learned to grind his own telescope lenses and sold them through mail order ads. Although his parents objected, he went to college where he met his future wife, Patricia, and her brother, James. Unfortunately, a hailstorm wiped out the family’s crops, and Clyde was forced to drop out of school. However, a professor recommended Clyde to the Lowell observatory. They were impressed with Clyde’s drawings of the night sky and gave him a part time janitor’s job. When he wasn’t sweeping floors and cleaning toilets, Clyde got to pursue astronomy. Being low man on the totem pole, he was relegated to the scut work of looking at thousands of photographic plates through a blink comparator, trying to find the mysterious “Planet X” that mathematicians and astronomers were sure existed. After eighteen months of looking at photographic plates, Clyde found the dwarf planet we now call Pluto.

The kids were fascinated by Clyde’s story, and Dr. Edson promised to introduce them. Of course two such scientists could not just make a simple appearance. They had to do something extra special. As it turned out, Clyde’s daughter Annette was a sixth grade teacher in Las Cruces, New Mexico. And since Woodland Park and Los Cruces are on almost the same longitudinal line, they cooked up an experiment in which my students and Annette’s students would measure the sun’s shadow at noon. Using the difference between the shadows and the distance between the two locations, our classes could replicate Eratosthenes’s measurement of the circumference of the Earth. It was a simple bit of geometry that most 12-year-olds could understand, even though they couldn’t master it.

The scheduled day came, and Doctors Edson and Tombaugh arrived and led my students through the experiment. It was a big success, complete with the local newspaper taking everyone’s picture. Although it was an honor to meet him, what I was most impressed by was Clyde’s enthusiasm for science. Both he and James had sparks in their eyes that old age and gray hair could not hide. And they did everything they could to pass that spark on to young people. And I can say for sure they had success in doing so. One of the twenty students in that class went to Annapolis and became a Navy flight surgeon. Another became an engineer and builder of prosthetic limbs.

I never saw Dr. Tombaugh again after that day. Annette and I repeated the Earth measuring experiment for two more years before she changed grade levels and it was no longer age appropriate. Dr. Edson continued to visit my class for a couple more years until the Parkinson’s and his wife’s declining health made it too difficult. It didn’t matter, though, in one sense. I had caught their fire as well. I sought out and got the training I needed to teach the “Oh wow” science that impressionable minds need to steer them into STEM careers. And I hope I did them proud. I know that at a minimum, my two sons caught the fire as well. It is an insatiable curiosity. An unwillingness to accept tidy answers that preclude new questions. And more importantly, the desire to share the curiosity that links us to our ancestors who always had to see what was on the other side of the mountain.

You won’t see the exact same details I just told you when Googling Tombaugh. But ultimately, which version is closer to the truth is irrelevant. The story of humans and their attempts to understand nature is messy and complicated. Just like nature itself. And now that the New Horizons spacecraft has passed by Pluto, it will explore the Kuiper belt. It is here that some of Dr. Clyde Tombaugh’s dust will rejoin the universe from which it came. And for a scientist like him, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA