Tombaugh papers a rich resource of science and history
Writer: Karl Hill
Clyde Tombaugh rarely threw anything away, and for that we can be thankful.
The famed astronomer’s papers are a rich legacy of scientific history covering most of the 20th century, starting before his discovery of the planet Pluto in 1930 and chronicling a career that spanned seven decades of unceasing curiosity.
Researchers mining this wealth of materials, recently donated by the Tombaugh family to New Mexico State University’s Rio Grande Historical Collections, will find gems everywhere, from scientific records to personal correspondence.
Among the jewels are early drawings of Jupiter and Mars that Tombaugh made while observing the planets with a telescope he built himself. He was still a Kansas farm boy then, but with an intense interest in astronomy, the ingenuity to make his own instruments, and the self-confidence to send some of his drawings to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., where a search was under way for a suspected Planet X.
Also among the papers is a Jan. 2, 1929, letter from V.M. Slipher, then director of the observatory, that includes what must be one of the understatements of the 20th century. “It seems to us you should be able to make yourself really useful to us,” Slipher wrote, offering a job to the audacious amateur.
Barely more than a year later, Tombaugh had found the elusive ninth planet. The news was announced to the world on March 13, 1930. Tombaugh was 24 years old.
“How would you feel if you saw a new world giving you the high sign beyond the rim of the solar system?” the suddenly famous farm boy wrote in an article carried by the Associated Press, a copy of which is among the memorabilia.
He closed the article this way: “I guess I’ll just keep on taking pictures of stars. That is what I like to do. I am studying Mars and the moon now. There is enough here to keep me busy for a long time.”
Indeed, Tombaugh stayed busy for another 66 years, and the papers document a remarkable career. In the words of Patsy Tombaugh, the scientist’s widow, “This archival material is about beginnings” -- the beginning of Tombaugh’s career as an astronomer, the beginning of the space age with rocket testing at White Sands Missile Range, the beginning of an astronomy research program at New Mexico State that would gain international recognition.
Although the formal donation took place only recently, “we agreed to give the papers to the university years ago,” Mrs. Tombaugh said. “We feel that this is the appropriate place for Clyde’s papers. He had a very close association with NMSU lasting over 40 years.”
Herb Beebe, a retired NMSU astronomer who knew Tombaugh well and is assisting NMSU Archivist Marah deMeule and Processing Assistant Christine Bruhnke in organizing the materials, said about 100 boxes of papers and odds and ends were moved from Tombaugh’s NMSU office to the library’s archives before Tombaugh’s death, at the age of 90, in January 1997. Much additional material remained at the Tombaugh home for Mrs. Tombaugh to go through, however.
Archivist deMeule expects it will take about 11 months to process the materials and develop what is known as a “finding aid” -- a detailed guide to the collection -- so that researchers can find what they need.
“We’re going to have to physically sort through every single item, to get a sense of the series and formats so we can organize the collection,” she said. “For instance, we might gather together all his research on Mars or all his research on near-Earth satellites, so researchers can pretty quickly get to the subjects they are interested in.”
In addition to extensive materials of scientific interest, the papers include correspondence and mementos of a biographical nature. A “to-do” list that Tombaugh began at about age 16, for instance, “shows the character of the boy who would become the man,” Patsy Tombaugh said.
Revealing the discipline of a scientist already, Tombaugh numbered each item and placed entries under the headings of “Things to do -- projects,” “Origin of intention (Time)” and “When completed.” Early entries on the list included “Read ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ” “Study Part 1 of ‘Sanitation and Physiology’ ” and “Work the problems about star rising in the back of trigonometry book.”
Some years later he wrote a diary-like letter to his family back in Kansas as he made the long train ride to his new job at the Lowell Observatory. “Oh, oh O, words can’t express the beauties I see,” he wrote at one point. “The valley cliffs are pink now ...”
Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto came early in his career, but his exploration never ceased. He and Patsy -- who met and married as students at University of Kansas, after he had already made history -- moved in 1946 to southern New Mexico, where captured German V-2 rockets were being tested at White Sands Missile Range. Tombaugh developed the equipment and the methods for optically tracking the rockets in flight.
In 1955, anxious to get back into astrophysical research, Tombaugh joined New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory and began a thorough, federally funded search for small near-Earth satellites that included excursions to Ecuador, along the equator. The project had major implications for the budding space program.
When NMSU students petitioned for Tombaugh to teach astronomy classes, it was the beginning of a new academic department at the university, separate from the Earth Sciences Department where astronomy had been taught previously.
Tombaugh remained active as a lecturer and a scientist long after he officially retired from NMSU, and his presence is still felt in many ways. The 24-inch telescope he designed for NMSU’s Tortugas Mountain observatory remains one of the best planetary telescopes ever designed, Beebe said, and the NMSU astronomy department has one of the strongest groups of planetary astronomers anywhere thanks largely to Tombaugh’s efforts and influence.
The permanent endowment that funds the Tombaugh Scholarship in astronomy, which supports the research of promising young astronomers, was raised in part by a 40-city lecture tour that Tombaugh undertook in his 80s.
Despite his many discoveries following Pluto -- star clusters, comets, asteroids and galaxy clusters among them -- “some of Clyde’s main contributions had to do with what he didn’t find,” Beebe said. “For instance, the near-Earth natural satellite search in the mid-50s had null results, thus reducing the fear of collisions with spacecraft.”
Discoveries and null results, papers and photographs, correspondence with the likes of Wernher von Braun and Carl Sagan -- the nuggets in the Tombaugh collection come in many forms. “It is of profound importance that these documents join those of other scientists available in other repositories throughout the country,” Beebe said.
To which Patsy Tombaugh added another perspective: “It’s a story of somebody’s life, somebody who was a very busy, very kind and energetic person.”