August 24, 2006

Pluto discoverer would understand demotion: widow

By Bill Trott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The American astronomer who put
Pluto on the solar system map would have accepted its demotion
to non-planet status because he was a good scientist, his widow
said on Thursday.

"Clyde said, 'Well, it's there. You can do what you want
with it,"' Patricia Tombaugh, 94, said from her home in Las
Cruces, New Mexico, after the International Astronomical Union
downgraded husband Clyde Tombaugh's crowning achievement.

Tombaugh was 24 years old and working at the Lowell
Observatory in Arizona in 1930 when he discovered Pluto, which
was then considered the ninth planet in the solar system and
the one most distant from the sun.

Patricia Tombaugh told Reuters by phone that her husband
was frustrated and disappointed when scientists began
questioning whether Pluto had the right stuff to be a planet.

The International Astronomical Union made it official in
Prague on Thursday when it voted to demote Pluto to "dwarf
planet" status.

Tombaugh said her husband, who died in 1997 at the age of
90, would have accepted the news with scientific detachment.

"Clyde would have said, 'Science is a progressive thing and
if you're going to be a scientist and put your neck out, you're
apt to have it bitten upon,"' she said.

"He was a good scientist and he knew how to judge things."

But Tombaugh's widow was feeling a little sad about the
lost status.

"Well, we had a job to do -- a position with the whole
community, the whole world for that matter," Patricia Tombaugh
said. "We did our thing and now it's over, I guess."

Tombaugh's interest in astronomy dated to his childhood in
Kansas. He vowed he had seen two unidentified flying objects in
New Mexico.

Despite Pluto's reclassification, Tombaugh still has a
substantial legacy in space. He discovered several asteroids,
naming some after his wife, children and grandchildren. Another
scientist named an asteroid after him, 1604 Tombaugh.

A tiny portion of his ashes are aboard a research
spacecraft expected to pass near Pluto on July 14, 2015.