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Week 9 of the NFL and the Story of Clyde W. Tombaugh, the Midwestern Man Who Discovered Pluto

By Lord Castleton | Miscellaneous | November 4, 2014 |

By Lord Castleton | Miscellaneous | November 4, 2014 |

A couple of weeks ago, we were going over Halloween costumes with the kids, finding out what each one wanted to be. We have a Darth Vader and a Chase from Paw Patrol and a Bunny. Then my oldest says he wants to be Cosmos host Neil Degrasse Tyson.

“Uh, ok, sure.” I say. Then I shoot a text to my buddy.



And so on Friday we escorted a polite but pasty Neil Degrasse Tyson with his brother and sisters as they trolled the neighborhood for Reeses Peanut Butter cups. It ultimately worked out fine because everyone thought he was Gabe Kotter from Welcome Back Kotter anyway. One of the benefits of having a son who is considerably smarter than you is that he can teach you things about subjects you never gave two shits about before. For example, in January of 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft on a nine year mission to get to Pluto. It was an ambitious goal, combining the fastest space vehicle ever made with a trajectory which would use the gravity of Jupiter to “slingshot” the probe to the outer rim of the solar system.

…That’s some Star Trek-sounding stuff right there. Tell me you can’t hear Geordi La Forge’s voice talking about how the warp core was damaged but if he re-calibrates the inertial dampeners he might be able to use the gravity of Jupiter to act as a slingshot. Will Riker strokes his beard in interest. Worf pauses, possibly smelling a Ferengi in heat. Deanna Troi stares on, stupidly, at the proceedings, trying to think back to the Academy, when she knew what a warp core was. She senses confusion. Despair. Inside of her. Wait then she senses something else. Eros. Yearning. Sexual desire. Oh, right, there’s Beverly Crusher, staring at the captain again. Data processes the math and jerks his head to the side to signify “that might just work” and Patrick Stewart takes a break from voicing the National Car commercials and joking on Twitter with Rob Delaney to “Make it so.”

That ship took off nine years ago. And guess what? It’s almost there. New Horizons is about nine months away from Pluto. The slingshot thing? Been there, done that. Jupiter is old news. New Horizons has Pluto squarely in her sights.

I wasn’t aware of the launch of New Horizons back in 2006. But in that time, I have become aware of such things. Forced to become aware, really. I know about things that didn’t interest me in school. I know about dark matter and the Oort Butt and the Kuiper belt. I know about Drake’s equation and Edmond Halley and Copernicus. I understand the concept of the Higgs Boson the way a small pig might understand that the sky is “up.”

I know these things because of my eleven year old in-house astronomer. When the Mars Curiosity Rover landed successfully he asked me why the entire world wasn’t stopping to celebrate for three days. When Higgs Boson was discovered, he wanted to know why it wasn’t a week long global holiday for every country in the world. As far as he could tell, it wasn’t even as big a deal as something like Survivor: Blood vs Water.

He also wants to know why I write about foolishness like football when I could write about important things like science and math. I told him that maybe I could write about both a little bit, and find something in his world that also interested me. It was a tall order, but after a while, I did come up with something. A man named Clyde Tombaugh and the little once-upon-a-time planet of Pluto.

In a very abridged version, Clyde Tombaugh was the dude that discovered Pluto. I don’t know what a discoverer of a planet looks like, but I doubt anyone would have pegged him for it. Just a midwestern kid of limited means, he built his own telescopes from scratch, and in February of 1930 while working at the Lowell Observatory, he followed a trail of breadcrumbs left by Percival Lowell and William Pickering and discovered the planet that was to be named Pluto. Most of us get excited when we discover a prize in the bottom of our cracker-jack box or five bucks in the pocket of our unwashed jeans. Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

Tombaugh passed away in 1997 at the ripe old age of 90. Nine years later, the New Horizons spacecraft set out for our solar system’s ninth planet. Six months into that same year, after much heated debate, and based on finding at least one icy asteroid with a greater mass than Pluto, it was reclassified as a “dwarf” planet.

People went crazy. How could Pluto not be a planet? School children wrote letters and demanded a reversal. Soccer moms huffed and clutched their pearls. Who did these “new” astronomers think they were? Astronomers like Neil Degrasse Tyson. Oh! I’m so fancy I have three names! I’m so much better than people like Isaac Newton who only have two names.

The fact of the matter is that the facts were the matter. People have emotional responses to things even when the facts don’t support their position. Pluto isn’t a planet. Despite what our wants or beliefs are — no matter how powerful or deeply held — we have to consider the facts.

This is true, also, for professional football, where one grating, deeply flawed coach once said “You are what your record says you are.” And, presumably, not what you wish it said you were.

Take this weekend’s games, for example.

San Diego has looked like a contender for most of the season and then they get blanked by Miami. Shut out. We’d like to believe that they’ll just go off on their by and then bounce back, but the fact of the matter is that once they lost Nick Hardwick, their starting center, the run game stopped working. And even though some teams whistle past the graveyard about this old NFL standby, you’re not going deep in the playoffs without a running game. If you even get there. But to score no points? None? The Dolphins are coached by a cadaver! How do you lose to this thing?

In New England, they’ve figured out something important about having an unstoppable tight end. It’s the nucleus of everything they do.

Because it causes matchup problems all over the place. If you try to bump him he mashes your defender away and is instantly open. If you try to run with him your guy invariably can’t blanket his entire catch radius. So you need two guys. Or three. And that leaves other players singled up all over the place. The Broncos have a comparable physical specimen in Julius Thomas. But they didn’t effectively use his powers of mismatching. Peyton should have come out and fed him non stop and forced the Patriots to double him. But that’s just Monday Morning Quarterbacking. The fact is that no matter what Peyton might wish, the Patriots now own the tiebreaker if these two teams finish the season with the same record. I’ll give it to the Broncos special teams, though. I couldn’t believe they countered this Patriots fake so well. Kudos.

And listen, I know Cleveland won, but Ben Tate is just awful. Truly awful. But not more awful than running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery. Or offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Or head coach Mike Pettine. Because there’s been a complete absence of conviction in deciding the running back rotation. Basically, how does Isaiah Crowell not get a single touch? And one carry last week? You have two backs that average less than two yards per carry and one who averages more than five. And you don’t know who to play? Uh, “I don’t set the running back rotation” says Pettine. “Uh, neither do I,” says Shanahan. So it’s up to a third tier coach to decide the fate of the Browns running game. And he’s doing absolutely shite job of it. You get the feeling that there’s a serious dick-measuring contest going on. Like Crowell isn’t kissing enough ass behind closed doors. Not that we’d ever know because the Browns beat writers have been mum on the subject. Thanks for really getting the scoop on the league’s most confounding running game, Browns beat writers! You have the investigative tenacity of parking meters everywhere. We can all wish that the guy the Browns gave a big contract to was the best runner but he isn’t. Crowell is. That’s a statistical fact and a fact to anyone who has the gift of sight. Crowell was the highest rated rookie back coming into the league and all he does is see the field like a goddamn superstar. And the Browns are too stupid to get him in the game. I was really pulling for Cleveland a few weeks ago, but they’ve already pissed in me lucky charms too much this season. If Crowell is on the pine, they’re going to get smoked in the battle of Ohio on Thursday night. And they should.

If the Jets didn’t have bad luck they wouldn’t have any luck.

Here’s a belief I have: Rex Ryan is an amazing coach and the Jets would be crazy to fire him. But he’s 1-8 and he will be fired. I think that sucks but the facts are the facts. He can’t seem to figure out a way to win, and he hasn’t had a real, honest-to-god NFL quarterback since Brett Favre. If I were ANY head coach I would be jumping through hoops of fire to get him as my defensive coordinator next season. He’s a savant. Too bad he never had a Bruce Arians type to help him on offense. Wherever he ends up next season, they’ll have a top three defense. He’s that good.

Philadelphia fans: sell high. I don’t care how he looked in the preseason. Mark Sanchez, even inside the cushy, protective goodness of Chip Kelly’s Boston Creme offense, is still Mark Sanchez. And Mark Sanchez suuuuuuuuuucks. On a scale of one to ten, one being an isopropyl alcohol razor-tornado touching down in a field of puppies and lambs and ten being Allah comes to Earth and tells everyone that it’s okay to draw him from now on, Sanchez is a 2.

And what about the Baltimore Ravens? What do you guys have to say for yourselves? How do you defend this low blow?

I see pictures of Terrell Suggs acting like a clown and I think “huh, maybe he’s not a cheap dick…” Nope. He’s a cheap dick. Quod erat demonstrandum. I’m thrilled that Big Ben and his unhinged jaw whipped some Raven ass. Where are all those Fire Todd Haley websites again? That’s right. Gone. Because any quarterback that scores back to back six touchdown games can chew as much cud as he likes.

Niners? Run the goddamn ball. I’ve said it for years now. Stop putting the game in the hands of Jafar. He’s not a franchise quarterback. He’s just a confused little kid in a man’s body. He can’t make pre-snap reads. He can’t find his third receiver. You trust him at your peril. Like the douchey KGB cook in The Hunt for Red October. He’ll sink your boat.

In the end, though, we all take what we see and frame it for our own consumption, like me and the story of Clyde Tombaugh. Because the coolest thing about this story for me, a non-astronomer, is the idea someone at NASA had to include some of Tombaugh’s ashes on the voyage. That seems like a wonderfully human gesture in a field that has always seemed kind of sterile and cold to me.

When he was a boy, grinding his own lenses, staring up into that Kansas sky through rudimentary telescopes he crafted with his own elbow grease, he could have never imagined that his remains would be guided to a planet that he would someday discover.

“Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).”

I don’t know why, but this voyage gives me a lot of comfort, knowing that Clyde Tombaugh is out there in the endless vacuum of space, more than three billion miles from Earth, heading toward an icy dwarf planet that people inexplicably love. Heading, in a strange way, home.


Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.