Review: Percival’s Planet
by Jeff Foust
|Rarely does a novel go into digressions of knife-edge optical tests for telescopes or an introduction to orbital mechanics—there’s even an equation in the text.|
Tombaugh, though, is only one of many characters—mostly but not entirely fictional—in Percival’s Planet. There’s a Harvard graduate student working at Lowell, the odd man out in a love triangle with a fellow student and a woman “computer” from the astronomy department there. There’s also a wealthy man who eschews the family business in favor of a search for dinosaur fossils, and a young woman in Boston battling mental illness. There are also some historical figures in the book, too, such as Lowell astronomer Vesto Slipher and Constance Lowell, widow of Percival Lowell.
The novel gets off to a slow start: much of the first half of the book is devoted to the individual stories of these and other characters, with the focus shifting from chapter to chapter. At times it’s hard to tell what some of these people have to do with the eventual discovery of Pluto. Eventually, though, these characters’ orbits do intersect in Flagstaff, the Arizona town that is the home of Lowell Observatory and, in the words of Byers, a “funny mix” of oddball characters: “you hardly have to walk a mile to encounter to encounter someone from another world who has decided the Colorado Plateau is the New Atlantis.”
Percival’s Planet is not a history of the discovery of Pluto, but Byers goes to great lengths to get the history, and the science, correct, even while weaving it into a work of fiction. Rarely does a novel go into digressions of knife-edge optical tests for telescopes or an introduction to orbital mechanics—there’s even an equation (a formulation of Kepler’s Third Law) in the text. That emphasis on authenticity may be lost on the average reader, and not strictly necessary for a work of fiction, but it is certainly appreciated by those with knowledge of the subject. The historical outcome of the novel—Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto—is certainly not a surprise, but the combination of historical detail and the interactions of a diverse set of characters, including Tombaugh, makes Percival’s Planet an entertaining read.