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"Percival's Planet" by Michael Byers

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In “Percival’s Planet,” Michael Byers brings us the fictionalized story of the 1930 discovery of Pluto. This consists of several separate stories, really, only one of which centers on Clyde Tombaugh, the young man fresh off the Kansas farm who actually does the trick. Other narratives involve Boston Brahmins throwing their weight around, a young, beautiful, mentally ill woman, and questing after the impossible dream on all sides.

Percival Lowell set up an observatory compound on a mountaintop near Flagstaff, Arizona, late in the 19th century, for the express purpose of finding the trans-Neptunian planet he assumed must be there. The assumption was rational enough, given the revolutions of the outer planets, and led reputable astronomers like Lowell to invest in the search. Many prominent astronomers of the day began to consider it a fool’s errand, though, and to question the validity of the basic data. And when in February of 1930 Tombaugh finally finds “Planet X,” as it is codenamed, tiny Pluto is nowhere near the size it needs to be to explain the rotation effects. So after the fateful discovery, the scientists still aren’t sure what they have on their hands.

But finding Planet X is only one of the quests that urge the narrative forward. Young and deeply troubled, Mary Hempstead runs out on her ex-fighter fiancé to try to get away from demons. The fiancé eventually starts a cross-country trek to find her; Felix DuPrie, scion of massive wealth, finds fulfillment as an amateur paleontologist. The scientists and mathematicians at the observatory, Percival Lowell’s aged and intolerant widow, and of course Clyde Tombaugh himself, achieve or approach goals to varying degrees. This story contains a variety of outcomes for a variety of characters, but I don’t think I’ve spent enough time with all of them to get the overarching principle in them, if there is one.

Mr. Byers weaves the stories together with telling precision and truth. This is a grand adventure not only in cutting-edge science, but in human struggles as well. Again and again we see “how the other half lives” and how each side of the great wealth gulf stands toward the other. Mr. Byers had to tell this story on a grand scale: the exhausting search of outer space, the vertigous vistas of Arizona, the devastating stock market crash. The scale is grand, but the telling is spot-on, so readable that the pages whiz by with the speed of a hurtling planet.
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