Let's begin at the beginning. How did you first know what you wanted to do in your life?
Clyde Tombaugh: When I was in the fourth grade, I became intensely interested in geography and I learned it well. In fact, by the time I was in sixth grade I could bound every country in the world from memory. By then the thought occurred to me, "What would the geography be like on the other planets?" So that was my natural entrance into astronomy, you see. So I've been interested in that area particularly ever since.
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Clyde Tombaugh: Of course, I took all the science and math that was offered in high school. I had an uncle in Illinois who lived about nine miles from us. He was an amateur astronomer, and he had a three-inch telescope. The views with that telescope were my first views of the rings of Saturn and Jupiter's moons and the craters of the moon.
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There must have been a driving curiosity with you.
Clyde Tombaugh: Yes, a very strong curiosity about the universe and so on. I just had the urge to see on the other side of the mountain. It was on the moon and the planets and all that you see. I wanted to extend my horizon of interest. It was a challenge to my thought life.
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How much luck was involved in the opportunity that you got?
Clyde Tombaugh: Being invited to come to Flagstaff was a big stroke of luck. The other was pluck, not really realizing I had been preparing myself for that for years before that: building that telescope, learning the finer objects in the sky, reading everything on astronomy I could get and to be very careful. I was somewhat of a perfectionist. So, those were the traits that made me a good candidate for this type of job.
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You credit your success to perseverance. What do you mean by that?
Clyde Tombaugh: You carry on through even despite of discouraging situations and you never lose sight of the goal. Often, you experience hardships involved like freezing in that cold dome at night, loss of sleep, and that gets pretty wicked, but I was interested in getting the results. It takes a dedication to achieve that kind of thing. A lot of people would give up and quit.
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Tell me about the day that you actually discovered the planet Pluto.
Clyde Tombaugh: I did not know that I had recorded the image of Pluto on those plates, not until I scanned them later in February. You passed your gaze over all these stars that you have to be conscious of seeing every star image, because you don't know which one's going to shift, if they shift. It's very tedious work and you go through tens of thousands of star images. I came to one place where it actually was, turned the next field and there it was! Instantly, I knew I had a planet beyond the orbit of Neptune because I knew the amount of shift was what fitted the situation. That was the most instantaneous thrill you can imagine. It just electrified me!
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Who was the first person you shared your discovery with?
Clyde Tombaugh: I told the assistant director [Dr. Lampland] across the hall from me. This machine makes a clicking noise that could be heard in that part of the building. His office was across the hall and he understood the blinking business, too. He'd been involved in some of the earlier searches. He said, "I heard the clicking suddenly stop and a long silence," and he surmised I had run into something. I was checking out the third plate, and here this poor man was sitting at his desk in terrible suspense, waiting to be invited in for a look. I didn't know about that until he told me later. I showed him the plates, the dates and all and that everything seemed to be consistent with putting the object beyond the orbit of Neptune, and then I went down and told the director. He came up and looked and saw. The Lowell Observatory was changed from that day on. Dr. Slipher was the Director. He had gone through the platal field and missed Pluto, one year earlier, missed it on the plates. He wanted to be the one to find Pluto and he failed. I suppose he probably felt a little chagrined, but he knew that I had something because the aspects were very convincing. Then, they got in touch with the observatory trustee, Lowell's nephew who was living in Massachusetts, and told him about it. It was kept secret for a few weeks so we could follow up and we could learn more about it so we published right about when it came out because we knew that when it was announced, there'd be an avalanche, and there was, exceeded what we expected.
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How did you name it Pluto?
Clyde Tombaugh: Pluto was the god of the underworld. The lower world, I guess it would be better to say -- of Hades. Pluto's out there far from the sun, where sunlight, at the average distance, is only one sixteen-hundredth as bright as on earth. Rather dark. And if you think of Hades as a dimly lighted place or outer darkness, it kind of fits in somewhat with the characteristics of Pluto probably, or of Hades. So it seemed fairly appropriate from that standpoint. And, then when the satellite of Pluto was discovered in 1978 by Christy at the Naval Observatory, he named it Charon because his wife's name was Charlene. Charon was the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to Pluto's realm of Hades. So the satellite name fits in very well with Pluto, you see.
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It seems that when people seek contact with a supreme power, they look upward. You spent so much of your life looking up to the skies. Is there any relationship there?
Clyde Tombaugh: Well, of course, heaven is no place in the space out there. I don't know where it would be. There's one place where I think they could say where hell is, that's on the planet Venus because the temperature's 900 degrees and no water and it rains sulfuric acid and the atmosphere is 90 times more oppressive than here, so that's a good place for hell. It's just the next planet over.
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Are you looking for anything in particular through those telescopes?
I have this feeling of wonder what it's like to kind of look there and just sweep around through the Milky Way and say, "Oh there's hundreds and hundreds of stars and star clusters." It gives me a feeling of great elation. It's a therapy for me, just idle, plowing through the sky. It's fun. I wonder about all the wonderful things that must be going on there that we don't see, realizing there are thousands and thousands -- millions -- of alien civilizations out there, doing things, maybe something like we are. This is something you think about.
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You do believe there are alien civilizations out there.
Clyde Tombaugh: Our sun couldn't be so peculiar as to be the only one, out of octillions of stars, to have a planet with life on it. That's totally against the odds, even if you have only one star out of ten thousand that has a planet that is right for life. We know now from sampling with big telescopes, that the number of stars in the skies is ten to the 21st power. Now, that doesn't mean anything until I tell you that the number of grains of sand in all of the earth's ocean beaches is only ten to the 19th power. So there are a hundred stars to every grain of sand in all the ocean's beaches. They're not all sterile. How could they be? You have to realize there's this enormous potentiality of trillions of planets out there with alien civilizations on them. We are not the center of the universe. We are not all that important. And we're not alone. That's my perspective.