Once in a while, a sense of true contact with the infinite can come upon you. We are so fortunate to live in Arizona, where simply standing before one of nature’s great landforms can create this ennobling experience.
Yet it is atop a relatively small, pine-covered elevation overlooking Flagstaff — appropriately called Mars Hill — that one of the greatest moments of such contact ever occurred.
There, a small collection of buildings is highlighted by a cylindrical one topped with a small dome — the Lowell Observatory. From that spot 75 years ago, on Feb. 18, 1930, a 24-year-old astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh did something only a handful of humans can claim to have done: He discovered a planet.
Small, frigid and distant — it takes nearly 250 years to orbit the sun only once — "Planet X" was named for Pluto, Roman god of the underworld. Pluto — which had been sought in earnest but remained elusive ever since Tombaugh’s precursor, Percival Lowell, first suggested that our solar system had a ninth planet — was proven to exist on this day in 1930.
The Associated Press reports that Lowell had built the observatory beneath northern Arizona’s crystal-clear skies in 1894 in an attempt to prove the existence of intelligent life on Mars. While failing at that, Lowell also had theorized, based on his mistaken belief that the planet Uranus’ orbit wobbled, that a mysterious ninth planet existed.
Despite his error about Uranus’ orbit — astronomers today call it a "serendipity of science" — Lowell had been correct that a ninth planet existed. Tombaugh found it, right where Lowell said it was.
Over several months, Tombaugh painstakingly examined hundreds of thousands of heavenly objects found on photographic plates taken of the night sky to see if one of them had moved from a few days before — planets being objects that gravity visibily moves, while stars stay relatively put.
Today you can still visit the still small observatory. The tour includes a showing of Tombaugh’s telescope, which is still in use. As you stare at the spot where he spent hundreds of lonely, mostly fruitless nights searching, searching — it hits you. You know, that infinite thing. It really does.