Friday, August 25, 2006

"He was a Scientist. He would Understand"

Until last Thursday, Clyde Tombaugh was the only person in the western hemisphere who had discovered a planet. He was a 24-year-old working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ who spent months looking for the planet that would have explained the odd perturbations to Uranus' orbit.

In this 1980 photo provided by Dale Wittner, Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh is shown outside his home in Las Cruces, N.M., with a telescope similar to one he used to find the planet years earlier. Pluto, beloved by some as a cosmic underdog but scorned by astronomers who considered it too dinky and distant, was unceremoniously stripped of its status as a planet Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006. (AP Photo/Dale Wittner)
AP Photo:
In this 1980 photo provided by Dale Wittner, Pluto discoverer, the late Clyde Tombaugh is shown outside of his home using a telescope he had constructed himself.

He found it, and thereby secured his place in the history books. But with the recent vote by the IAU to demote the object to a "Dwarf Planet" those history books now require revision, and Mr. Tombaugh's name will likely drift even further into obscurity.

Tombaugh's widow Patricia said in a telephone interview yesterday that she was frustrated by the decision toe strip Pluto of its planetary status, but she was careful to add the Clyde would have understood. "He was a Scientist. He would understand they had real problems when they started finding several of these tiny things flying around the place."

How many people in how many occupations would react to such a reduction in the status of their crowning achievement, the very focus of their lives, with such equanimity? This type of mental flexibility, and the willingness to change world-views based on incontrovertible natural evidence is the acme of the scientific method. Bringing a similar approach and philosophy to other fields would have broad ranging technical, political, economic, and religious advantages.

Sadly, most people tend to cling more tightly to their world-view, and so we suffer ill-informed leadership and strife across the Middle East and Africa. Kudos to Clyde. I'll always remember Pluto, and your intrepid spirit.

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