Hobbies, opportunities, and judgment

On a tour at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, while looking at the equipment and reproductions of the photographs that were used to discover Pluto, we learned about Clyde Tombaugh, the man behind the discovery.

The story as I remember it is that Percival Lowell believed there to be another planet because of oddities in Uranus and Neptune, looked for it, and failed. It wasn’t until after his death that the search resumed, but other astronomers weren’t interested in doing the work. 

An amateur astronomer from Kansas whose day job was farm work sent some unrelated, unsolicited work to the observatory for feedback. The director was so impressed by his work that he offered the job of looking for Pluto. Tombaugh took the job.

Using photography of the region of the sky where they believed they’d see the elusive ninth planet, Tombaugh compared shots of consecutive nights. A planet would move from night to night, whereas the surrounding stars would be fixed.

After several months of taking and examining these photos, he found Pluto. The discovery was verified by others and announced nearly a month later, on the 49th anniversary of the discovery of Uranus and what would have been Lowell’s 75th birthday.

The piece that stuck out to me in this story was the unwillingness of professional astronomers to give this project time or attention. It could have been Lowell’s reputation. It could have been that they had better things to do. But whatever it was, there were three important details that created the story the way it is.

  1. Tombaugh soliticited the observatory for feedback on his work. Without this, they certainly wouldn’t have known he existed.
  2. The director offered him the job, regardless of his lack of official credentials or expertise.
  3. Tombaugh took the job.

The takeaways as I see them: 

  • Do your work. Do it well. 
  • Solicit feedback in a graceful way. Nowadays, this can include simply putting it out there.
  • If you’re offered an amazing opportunity, take it.

And on the flip side: 

  • The best-educated people are not always the best bet.
  • Jobs that are “beneath” you might yield more than you expect.
  • Be open to opportunity. I’m sure that if asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” a Kansas 24-year-old farm boy wouldn’t have answered, “In Arizona, having just discovered a new planet.”

Also, for what it’s worth, according to the definition of “planet” that demoted Pluto, Earth and Jupiter (among most others, actually) wouldn’t be planets either. I wonder if Tombaugh’s lack of formal education in astronomy prior to Pluto’s discovery plays into the decision at all.

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