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A Tour de Force of Planetary Discovery

Steven Vogt (UC-Santa Cruz) is suddenly the buzz of the blogosphere, though not in ways he might have intended. The designer of the HIRES spectrometer that made the detection of Gliese 581g possible, Vogt can claim pride of place as the discoverer of the first near-Earth mass planet found in the habitable zone of its star. But he’s also taking his lumps for saying that he could all but guarantee life on that planet. An unwise call, as many commenters here have noted. Perhaps even more unwise is his hope to name the new planet after his wife, Zarmina.

Centauri Dreams has nothing against the notion of naming celestial objects for loved ones, but caution should always be the byword. Suppose, for example, that Mrs. Vogt, fed up with publicity and tired of the company of astronomers, should surprise her husband by leaving him. Vogt’s ex would be forever enshrined in the celestial sphere, a taunting presence whenever the poor man thought of the Gl 581 system. Such a scenario happens in Michael Byers’ marvelous novel Percival’s Planet (New York: Henry Holt, 2010), in which one character, an astronomer named Alan Barber, conceives a hopeless romance for a co-worker and winds up naming his newly discovered comet ‘Florence.’

Florence, of course, has plans beyond Barber, and runs off with a friend of his, her absence causing not only months of anguish but, even worse, raised eyebrows and shaking heads among his colleagues, whose 1920s observatory culture doesn’t mesh well with the extravagant romantic gesture. I bring all this up not only to have a bit of fun with Steven Vogt (whose achievements we all celebrate), but also to clue you in to the Byers book, which is one of the more splendid things I’ve read in the past decade. No kidding, it’s that good, a fictional account of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto at Percival Lowell’s observatory outside Flagstaff, Arizona.

How to write a fictional account of an actual event? Byers does it by entering into the head of the driven Tombaugh with the ease and plausibility of long familiarity. He also does it by creating a cast of supporting characters, some of them real people, like the astronomer and observatory director Vesto Slipher and the waspish Constance Lowell, and some fictional, like the wealthy archaeologist Felix DuPrie, and an elusive beauty named Mary who flits through the lives of all these people as she battles a rare form of schizophrenia. Barber’s struggles with Lowell’s equations (he’s looking for Lowell’s ‘planet X’) are paralleled by his deepening relationship with the tumultuous Mary, once Florence has left him no more than a comet to remember her by.

Byers’ prose is gemlike, with many paragraphs that saw me pause, think for a bit, and then read the paragraph over again just to savor the language. But Byers, though no astronomer, has done his homework and shows a knowledge of both astronomy and the scientific culture of Tombaugh’s Pluto-finding era that makes his account utterly convincing. Here Barber and Slipher are in the dome of the 42-inch instrument at Flagstaff on the night of cometary discovery:

The 42-inch is an old instrument — it has been around since 1909 — but still brutally powerful with its giant mirror and especially good for planetary survey work as it collects a lot of light quickly. It is stubby and broad and supported in a massive steel harness. Also like the Clark, it is so perfectly balanced a man can stand flat-footed and with one hand pivot its huge bulk on its multiple axes. Slipher’s observation of the North Polar Cap of Mars continues. ‘You can find him for me,’ Slipher offers, and Alan checks the charts. This dome is moved electrically, so he lifts the heavy gray switchbox from its place on the cement floor and depresses the black button that sends the big hemicircle shuddering around above them to the proper position. Then he directs the telescope at the hot red spark of Mars using the little aiming scopes aligned along the barrel of the 42. He turns the gears that lock the telescope to the tracking motors, then loads a plate into the spectroscope and checks his watch by the low red light. Then he bends to catch a glimpse of the planet itself through the main scope. The detail is good, a wavering red-brown disk the size of a nickel, three dark slashes in the northern hemisphere and a white blur at the pole. By photographing it, week after week, year after year, you could build up a fairly complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, the weather systems, and thereby arrive at a convincing idea of what it would be like to live there. Impossible, is the consensus. Although you don’t really say such a thing aloud at Lowell.

Mars, of course, was one of Percival Lowell’s idées fixes, the other being Planet X, a putative gas giant of at least Neptune mass that Lowell found in the residuals of his orbital calculations for the other eight planets. Tombaugh would find Pluto while searching for Planet X, and one of the high points of the novel is the reaction around the observatory, particularly Slipher’s, when everyone realizes that while they have indeed found a new world, it couldn’t possibly be Planet X. I have to quote from a bit of this delicious exchange, as Barber has been trying to refine the orbit of the object Tombaugh has found. Slipher has stuck his head around the door of Barber’s office:

‘Anything yet?’

‘Getting closer. It’ll be rough.’

‘That’s fine. We just want a little bit of an idea tonight. Tombaugh’s still working over the old plates,’ Slipher tells him. ‘No luck yet.’

‘Hard to believe he saw it in the first place.’

‘Small, isn’t it?’ Slipher winces.

‘Small,’ Alan says, addressing his papers, ‘and faint.’

‘You noticed,’ Slipher says. ‘So my first thought was, well, all right, maybe it’s just got a very low albedo.’

‘Sure,’ he answers. ‘But what sort of gas doesn’t reflect light?’

‘And then I thought, Well, maybe it’s all frozen out. At that distance.’


Slipher says, ‘But that’s not likely, is it?’

Alan lays his pencil down. He knows what Slipher wants. What the best thing is, for all of them. He fingers his scar, slick across his cheek. Still, he musters some vestige of resistance. He says, ‘It doesn’t look right to me. No disk at all. Magnitude 15.’

Slipher nods at his shoes, acknowledging it. ‘You can get us a mass.’

‘Not too long.’

‘At least no canals, please,’ Slipher warns, and ducks back into the corridor.

You’ll notice that Clyde Tombaugh himself is hardly at the center of this review, although he’s a richly drawn character throughout. But Byers isn’t trying to do a fictionalized biography of the Kansas farmboy who worked so hard to demonstrate that he was something more than a lens-grinding hobbyist and wound up electrifying Depression-era America. Rather, he’s trying to catch a time and a place, and his novel is very much a collage of characterization, each individual resonating in a setting painted with precise, intricate strokes. Percival’s Planet becomes a study in obsession, from Lowell’s canals to the hapless Felix DuPrie’s dinosaurs, dug out of soft Arizona stone and representing a kind of redemption that, like Planet X, is meant to reinvent a career.

And what a place is the Arizona that draws all these people. This place, this time, more than any of the characters by themselves, forms the real focus of Byers’ book, a place of ‘[t]ubercular patients in their last visionary days, half-mad desert seekers, white-gowned proponents of psychical truth, sunstruck mummy hunters prospecting in the Grand Canyon, dog-nipped Navaho dreamers, earnest ethnographers with their wax-cylinder recorders strapped to their horses hunting down the Hopi to quiz them on their otherworldly verb structure…” And so on, a portrait of the Colarado Plateau as the New Atlantis. Michael Byers is not a science fiction writer and he is not a writer of science. He is a literary novelist of the first rank whose name is about to start resonating, and if you choose to read Percival’s Planet, I think you’ll soon see why.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alexander October 4, 2010, 9:33

    I will look for the novel in my local bookstore. The excerpts are very intriguing, thanks for giving us a heads-up.

    On a note, you said in the third paragraph of your post Pluto was discovered in Flagstaff, New Mexico, but I assume you meant Arizona.

  • Thomas Hair October 4, 2010, 9:40

    Thanks for the update Paul. The 100% comment was a serious case of irrational intellectual exuberance but the wife-naming thing was probably just a simple case of irrational affectional exuberance.

  • Paul Gilster October 4, 2010, 10:14

    Yipes — I wrote ‘New Mexico’ when I meant Arizona. Thanks to Alexander for catching that. I’ve fixed it in the original post.

  • r2k October 4, 2010, 11:40

    Good points, I was upset to hear that people jumped to the conclusion about life on this planet. That is just silly. On the other hand, we are unlikely to start naming extra-solar planets any time soon; we will quickly discover thousands of these over the next decade or two. We simply do not have enough names.

  • kurt9 October 4, 2010, 12:23

    Its not possible to say that there is life on this planet. The only things we know about this planet is its orbit and its mass. It could be bone dry or even a water world (planetary ocean 50 miles deep). Either one of these scenarios would make life unlikely. Also, if the planet is too massive (more than three times Earth mass), it might not have plate tectonics because its lithosphere might be too thick. This might be how it became bone dry or it became bone dry simply because there were not enough volatiles in its solar system to begin with. Do M stars have fewer volatiles around them than G’s like our own? There’s a lot we don’t know right now.

    It could still be an alien world. That it’s rotation is tidally locked to its star guarantees that it is a very alien planet.

    What this finding does make clear is that planets in the Goldilocks orbits are a very common occurrence in the galaxy. That is all we know for now.

  • kurt9 October 4, 2010, 13:35

    Is there anyway to do spectral analysis of this planet to see if there is water vapor of free Oxygen in the atmosphere? This would tell us a lot. Presumably this would require space-borne instruments which, in turn, would be quite expensive.

  • ToSeek October 4, 2010, 15:26

    I got the book from the local library a week or so ago. It’s next on my list after I finish the one I’m working on now. I’m looking forward to it.

  • amphiox October 4, 2010, 16:22

    re kurt9;

    I recall reading somewhere that based on some models Super-earth type planets up to 2-10X heavier than earth might in fact have a thinner lithosphere than smaller worlds like earth and venus, due to the greater interior heat afforded by the greater mass, and that they would be in fact more likely to have plate tectonics, even in the absence of a massive impact resulting in a thinning of the crust, as with earth. (In short, Super-earth planets might in fact be more likely to habitable than earth-sized planets, at least on these parameters).

    It also seems to me that water worlds with very deep oceans could be considered less likely to be inhabited than earth-type worlds only if abiogenesis really does require a water-rock interface energized by geothermal sources, as is theorized in some abiogenesis scenarios. However, if abiogenesis is also possible on surface ice energized with stellar UV radiation, as has recently been proposed, then an ocean planet would offer no major barriers if it had a temperature range that allowed for the existence of ice-water interfaces, so long as the other necessary elements are also present, (it’s hard to imagine any scenario where they wouldn’t be present, though concentration might be an issue).

    It also seems to me that even if deep-ocean water worlds do indeed turn out to be difficult places for independent abiogenesis to get going, they would still be inviting environments for colonization (directed or otherwise) for lifeforms initiating elsewhere. So one would have to factor in the likelihood of various types of panspermia as well as intelligence/technology directed colonization (one could consider this one subtype of panspermia, of course).

    Then there is the issue of age. Since Gliese 581 is over 7 billion years old, a planet like Gliese 581g could easily have had a habitable lifespan as long as earth’s is expected to be, and be sterile today, having transitioned from life-supporting to not life-supporting 1-2 billion years ago. Of course we can’t say that the factors that govern habitable lifespan on worlds around G-stars like earth will be the same for M-stars, since so much of it is dependent of aspects of stellar evolution that may differ between those spectral classes.

    In short, I think when we speculate about the likelihood of planets being inhabited (as opposed to potentially habitable), we shouldn’t pretend that these speculations are in any way “educated” or scientifically informed. The level of our current state of knowledge on the pertinent factors is simply not sufficient to justify such claims.

  • J. Major October 4, 2010, 18:33

    Intriguing review of what looks like a great book, Paul. I’ll definitely check this one out!

  • Phil October 4, 2010, 20:42


    Yeah, but maybe Gliese 581g could be transitioning to habitability just now, following a long period where the flares typical of a young M class star were slowly diminishing?

    Just saying! (I agree – too many other unknown variables to really make a sensible comment)


  • Ken October 6, 2010, 18:11

    This is a side issue, but I do want to say that whatever the ultimate fate of Vogt’s marriage, I and many others are delighted by the name “Zarmina” — a whimsical, fanciful name for a feel-good planet.

  • Paul Gilster October 6, 2010, 20:15

    Ken, my thoughts on the name ‘Zarmina’ exactly!

  • coolstar October 7, 2010, 11:21

    I think we should all give Vogt some slack on his much ballyhooed quote: first, we don’t actually know that’s what he said and second, even if he said it, he was more than likely speaking his opinion, as you would to a neighbor. He knows as well as anything that there’s no evidence of life on Gleise 581 g and there’s likely to be none, for quite a long time (even if it’s teeming). He simply seems to think that the odds are very, very good for life there, he may well be right, but as has been pointed out, he could also well be wrong.
    By the way, the 42 inch telescope mentioned is NOT the John S. Hall Ritchey-Chretien that’s been at Anderson Mesa since 1966 ( a very productive telescope that I’ve used several times). In fact, I had never heard of the telescope mentioned until reading this post and just assumed that Byers had made a mistake; he didn’t. He did make several elementary astronomy and history mistakes in the passage quoted concerning Pluto’s albedo and mass though. At least they appear to be mistakes, it’s possible that in the correct context of the entire novel, they’re historically appropriate to the state-of-the-art at the time, to be fair. I hope so, in any case, though I’m pretty doubtful….

  • ljk October 12, 2010, 0:38

    coolstar said on October 7, 2010 at 11:21:

    “I think we should all give Vogt some slack on his much ballyhooed quote: first, we don’t actually know that’s what he said and second, even if he said it, he was more than likely speaking his opinion, as you would to a neighbor.”

    Coolstar, here is Steve Vogt’s response to his critics about saying that exoplanet Zarmina (a.k.a. Gliese 581g) has life on it without having actual scientific proof of such life:


  • Duncan Ivry October 12, 2010, 13:55

    Thank you, ljk (a.k.a. Larry), for pointing to Steve Vogt’s (Stephen, Steven, Steve) response about planet Steve, a.k.a. Gliese 581g — yes, for me it’s planet Steve. Well, I think, Vogt is a good scientist, and even a good scientist should be allowed to talk a little bit foolish from time to time.

    Having said this, there is something remarkable in Vogt’s response. Having had time to think about the case, he now talks about “stating what I believe”, while saying “I don’t have any facts that prove anything like that – I just have my opinions”, and “heck I’m pretty sure there’s life there”.

    Could it be, that, in a scientific case — and after having it considered again! –, he discriminates between what he accepted as true as a scientist versus what he accepted as true as a non-scientist? (Here I use the explication of “believe” from the New Oxford American Dictionary.)

    Not only that “just” having opinions sounds a little bit helpless here (sadly, too many scientists are a little bit helpless, when it comes to communication), scientists should not present themselves as kind of schizo. Seriously: What is and should be the “opinion” of a person who’s job is science? Come on!

    Bottom line: Thanks go to Steve Vogt for his good scientific work regarding planet Steve, a.k.a. Gliese 581g; and why not give the name of a man, who shows a lack of judgement, to a planet.

  • ljk October 13, 2010, 22:48

    I am all for humanity getting a star probe to the Gliese 581 system as soon as possible to find out if Vogt is right or not about life there.

    I agree with Duncan that people really need to be more careful about using the word “belief”. I have seen even professional scientists say that they “believe” in extraterrestrial life. No, one can say they think or theorize that aliens exist, but to believe in them to me sounds too much like religious faith or the worshipping of a supernatural deity. Even if some aliens do seem godlike to us, they are still of this mortal realm and I am not joining any such cult.

  • ljk October 14, 2010, 1:57

    Oct 12, 2010

    Buzz About Gliese 581g: Doubts of Its Existence; Aliens Signals Detected

    by Nancy Atkinson

    Ever since the announcement of the discovery of exoplanet Gliese 581g, there has been a buzz in the news, on websites, Twitter – pretty much everywhere, about the first potentially habitable extrasolar planet. But the past couple of days there has been a different sort of buzz about this distant world.

    Two stories have surfaced and they both can’t be true. The first one is fairly off the deep end: an astrophysicist from Australia claims that while doing a SETI search two years ago, he picked up a “suspicious signal” from the vicinity of the Gliese 581 system, and a couple of websites have connected some dots between that signal and a potentially habitable Gliese 581g.

    The second one is more sobering. At an International Astronomical Union meeting this week, other astronomers have raised doubts whether Gliese 581g actually exists.

    Full article here:


  • ljk November 3, 2010, 4:17

    Review: Percival’s Planet

    In recent years Pluto has been the subject of a number of books about whether or not it should be classified as a planet. Jeff Foust reviews the book with a very different angle on the distant world: a historical novel about its discovery 80 years ago.