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Pluto in fact and fiction

\"Percival's Planet\" uses the search for Planet X as its starting point.
\"Percival's Planet\" uses the search for Planet X as its starting point.Henry Holt and Co. via AP

Pluto and its discoverer play key roles in "Percival's Planet," a novel that weaves a fictional tale around historical and scientific facts from 80 years ago.

That's not the way Michael Byers expected things to go when he began thinking about the book. The University of Michigan creative-writing professor intended to write about his grandparents and their turbulent relationship in the 1920s and 1930s. But once he started telling the story of his grandfather's Harvard law-school education, his courtship and marriage, he realized that the tale was "very boring."

"I couldn't quite find the interest in the material that I felt was needed," Byers told me, "so I actually put the whole project down." Instead, he wrote a novel about something else entirely, titled "Long for This World."

By the time he returned to the family saga, another angle popped into his head: Byers recalled that while his grandfather was in law school, other folks with Harvard connections were engaged in a more exciting project: looking for the mysterious Planet X that had been predicted by Percival Lowell, a Boston brahmin-turned-astronomer.

"I decided to turn my grandfather from a lawyer into an astronomer," Byers said. And not just any astronomer: In Byers' story, the fictional character is a close colleague of Clyde Tombaugh, the real-life astronomer who found Pluto in 1930 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Byers' character, named Alan Barber (Alan B. - hey, I like that!), is given the task of checking Tombaugh's math to make sure what he found was a real planet.

\"Percival's Planet\" uses the search for Planet X as its starting point.
\"Percival's Planet\" uses the search for Planet X as its starting point.Henry Holt and Co. via AP

The resulting novel blends fictional characters (such as Jean and Sarah, Tombaugh's supposed daughter and granddaughter) with real ones (such as Percival Lowell's meddlesome widow, Constance, as well as Tombaugh's wife, Patsy, who is very much alive today at the age of 97). The reviews have been mixed: The Seattle Times' Misha Berson calls "Percival's Planet" an "absorbing, fascinating new novel," while The Associated Press' Patrick Condon says it's a "strangely earthbound book."

I wasn't about to let Condon's discouraging words keep me away from the novel, in large part because of my own work of nonfiction about the dwarf planet's discovery, "The Case for Pluto." Sure, I like a good romance as much as the next guy, but I was primarily interested in how Byers handled the story of Pluto's discovery. It turns out that was a subject of interest for Byers as well.

"I really did want to know more about what they thought they had," Byers told me. "It seemed to me that they were a little cagey about what they came up with, and they were cautious. ... It seemed to me that one of their difficulties was in telling the story to themselves of what they had done."

That squares with my impression: Veteran astronomer Brian Marsden, who supported Pluto's controversial reclassification as a dwarf planet almost exactly four years ago, once said that the Lowell Observatory's astronomers "bamboozled" the world into accepting the smaller-than-expected world as one of the solar system's major planets. But the historical record shows that the Lowell scientists were unusually circumspect about describing what they found - until the press anointed Pluto as the "ninth planet."

The astronomers waited for a month before announcing what they found - and when the announcement was finally issued, they noted only that the object behaved like a "Trans-Neptunian body at approximate distance [Lowell] assigned." Tombaugh was reportedly so baffled by Pluto's dimness that he wondered whether he had merely found the moon of a planet yet to be discovered.

"Clyde is figuring out that they're a little unsure of what they found," Byers said. "Basically, he asks 'What is it?' ... and he gets told, 'Well, it's Planet X, kid, get used to it.'"

Once the rest of the world accepted Pluto as a planet, so did the astronomers. One of the difficulties was that Pluto was the first object of its kind to be discovered. The next object in the icy belt of material beyond Neptune would not be discovered until 1992.

"When they found Pluto in 1930, they didn't have a better word for it," Byers observed. "It was a planet, and that was the best applicable term to come up with. They could have invented a term, like dwarf planet, I suppose. But it wasn't there. ... I think they acted in fairly good faith, let's say. They weren't trying to fool anybody, but they didn't stand in anybody's way."

Because Byers' story ends in 1990, there's just a tiny whiff of the debate over Pluto that was to come. "As the author, I ackowledge that there's a controversy over its status," he told me. "The story goes on, but I choose to leave the story back in 1990 as a tip of the hat to Clyde himself, just to honor him and his discovery. I don't have a horse in this race. I leave that to the pros to figure out."

Byers isn't so interested in asking whether Pluto is or isn't a planet (and it's a type of planet, by the way). He's much more interested in asking why people care so much about the answer - and here again, Byers' view squares with my own.

"It matters to us what these facts are," he said. "It matters to us deeply. And we don't notice how much it matters until those facts change. And the most moving aspect of the controversy surrounding the planet's reclassification has been that recognition in people: that it matters to them how the solar system is laid out. It's probably something no one would have given a second thought to, had Pluto not been forced to suffer its demotion. I like that."

If you like that, too, give Byers' book a look - and take a look at the other works from the Pluto Authors' Fraternity, including my own "Case for Pluto," Neil deGrasse Tyson's "The Pluto Files," Laurence Marschall and Stephen Maran's "Pluto Confidential," Alan Stern and Jacqueline Milton's "Pluto and Charon," Paul Sutherland's "Where Did Pluto Go?" ... and the true story of Clyde Tombaugh, David Levy's "Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of Planet Pluto."

Update for 5 p.m. ET: Still more authors are due to be inducted into the fraternity. Caltech astronomer Michael Brown is coming out with "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming," and longtime Plutophile Laurel Kornfeld is working on a book as well, titled "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story." Keep an eye out for "Pluto: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System," written by British astronomer Barrie Jones. The book gets into the nitty-gritty of Plutonian planetary science, including actual math and data diagrams. Jones also presents a sensible view on Pluto's current status:

"I dislike the creation of the class 'dwarf planet' separate from the distinct class 'planet.' I would much prefer a class 'planet' with a sub-class 'dwarf planet,' and another sub-class, possibly named 'large planet.' ...

"So, for now, we have to make do with a flawed, incomplete classification system for planets.

"With things as they are, is the solar system 'stuck' with just having eight planets? Not necessarily. Who knows what lurks in the outer depths of the solar system?"

Who indeed?

More about the planet search:

YouTube video above: Video trailer for "Percival's Planet" by Nobun Productions. Byers' book is titled "The Unfixed Stars" in Britain and other markets abroad.

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