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Science and Innovations

Flagstaff Authors Tell Pluto’s Story

Melissa Sevigny

Two new books chronicle Flagstaff’s long history with everybody’s favorite dwarf planet, Pluto. It was discovered at Lowell Observatory in 1930 and it’s been the toast of the town ever since. Local scientists have been involved with nearly every major Pluto discovery, including the recent flyby by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny brought the authors of the new books into the studio to have a conversation about why they think little Pluto is a big deal for Flagstaff.

SCHINDLER: My name is Kevin Schindler. I’m the historian at Lowell Observatory.

GRUNDY: Actually, it was Kevin that twisted my arm to contribute to this book. I’m Will Grundy, planetary scientist at Lowell Observatory.

SHEEHAN: I’m Bill Sheehan, independent scholar and psychiatrist. I got interested in the story when was I about ten years old, actually. And the first person that really captivated my imagination at that point was Percival Lowell.  

SCHINDLER: Lowell wasn’t the only person looking for a ninth planet, but Lowell really is the one who spent the most amount of time and the most amount of resources. ….. As Will has pointed out, you look at the evolution of our knowledge about Pluto, it kind of parallels Flagstaff itself, where Flagstaff was a young community and it has matured and grown, just like Pluto has. Except Pluto has gotten smaller with time, and Flagstaff has gotten larger, I guess. But besides that…..

GRUNDY: Yeah, I like to think of Pluto and Flagstaff having grown up together in a sense, because if you think back to when Percival Lowell first seriously started hunting for Pluto in 1905, Flagstaff was a little depot on the railroad where cattle and logs would get loaded on the trains.

SCHINDLER: And Arizona wasn’t even a state yet.

GRUNDY: Yeah, Arizona wasn’t a state yet. And by the time Pluto was discovered, Arizona was a state, but Flagstaff was still a pretty small town and it was the dark part of the Great Depression. So here was this bright shining discovery, like the one happy piece of news amidst a flood of discouraging news.

SCHINDLER: And you think about the size of Pluto, we think about planets as being very large, Pluto’s about half the size of our moon. It’s not a very big planet.

SHEEHAN: Well, and that’s significant because it ends up what Clyde Tombaugh discovered was the largest of the Kuiper Belt objects. And it’s significantly brighter and larger than any other Kuiper Belt Object. It’s really anomalous in that respect. That brings us to the vexed question of whether it deserves to be a planet or a dwarf planet. I think most planetary scientists still are of the opinion that it should be called a planet. Small animals are not called something else—


SHEEHAN: They’re still animals. Yes, small animals are bugs. Maybe we should call Pluto a bug. [laughter]

SCHINDLER: You know, I think something else interesting about the controversy, beyond whether we call it a planet or not, it that it really showed Pluto as a member of this third zone of the solar system. You have the inner terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and then these icy bodies. Pluto’s the king of those. Whether it’s a planet or not aside, it’s part of a whole zone of the solar system out there that was previously not understood, up until just recently.

GRUNDY: And there’s a whole zoo of these bodies out there and probably still some that haven’t even been discovered yet.

SHEEHAN: I think it really gives us a sense of how small we are, and how tangential we are, in some ways, on our little earth, to what’s going on in the larger cosmic picture.

GRUNDY: This flyby of Pluto, a couple of years ago now, gave a whole new generation a taste of what it’s like to see something—a whole new class of object for the first time ever, and have your head blown. …. And it’s really great for the public to get a chance to see that and for a new generation especially to see that.

The books are Discovering Plutoby Bill Sheehan and Dale Cruikshank, and Pluto and Lowell Observatory by Will Grundy and Kevin Schindler. You can meet the authors tomorrow at the grand reopening of the Pluto Discovery Telescope. The event starts at 3 p.m. at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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