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Interview: KNAU | Arizona Public Radio

Diane Phelps Budden

Feb 19, 2024

Childen's book tells the story of Pluto's discovery.

Sunday is the 94th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery. It was spotted by a young farmhand–turned–astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh, who scoured the skies night after night from Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory. His story is told in a new children’s book called Needle in a Haystack.

KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Sedona author Diane Phelps Budden about how she hopes Tombaugh’s journey to the stars will inspire children to chase their dreams.

Tell me a little bit about Clyde Tombaugh. Who was he and what was so interesting about his story to you?

I was very impressed that this young man, who came from a very modest background on a farm… He did not have a college degree, he desperately wanted one…. He had an uncle back in Streater, Illinois, who he always credits with introducing him to astronomy and lighting the fire.… When he finally found out what his dream was for himself, he set out to decide how he was going to achieve that. That impressed me. Many people, including me, we have ideas of the things we’d like to accomplish or things we see for ourselves, and we don’t track them down like Clyde did.

So he figures out he has this dream of being an astronomer, how does he end up at Flagstaff at Lowell Observatory?

He had watched his dad in his struggle to make a decent living on the farm… and shortly after he graduated from high school there was a huge, huge hailstorm and it destroyed all the crops. The money from those crops he wanted to use to go to college. The money was gone. He said to his dad, “I have to leave. I can’t stay here anymore. I don’t want to be a farmer where my work depends on the weather.” Of course, his parents were very sad to see him go, but they saw what his strengths were to be an astronomer so they helped him move on his way… and I credit his parents for letting him go.

So he writes a letter to folks at Lowell Observatory.

A couple of them… and they desperately needed someone who would work for little pay and knew some things about astronomy, they could see how precise a personality he had, and they thought “This is the guy we need right now, we want to find a new planet.”

So let’s talk about that big moment. He sets out to find a planet. How does that happen?

Yes, he does… The kind of thing he did for almost a year would normally today be done by a computer… He didn’t have any of that, he captured everything he saw, every image he took, all his comments, in journals…. So he would take the photos and put them in this thing called a blink comparator. So he could move them back and forth cause he was looking for something that had moved in a period of time, say a week apart. He looked and looked and looked and finally on Feb 18 he saw it, and it was Pluto…. Oh my gosh, it wasn’t just Lowell and Flagstaff and his family, the whole world was excited. I wondered maybe it that was the case because he was the first American to find a planet, but also the Depression was settling in, and that was such sad times, but this would have been exciting, uplifting news… Even the New York Times printed a headline. That’s really getting big.

Putting Flagstaff on the map there.


Why did you want to tell this children’s book? What is important about this story for children to hear?

It was so inspiring…. and I knew the kids would be excited about knowing the story behind Pluto… His dream came true. That’s a wonderful story when someone’s dream comes true.

Diane, thank you so much for sharing this story with us.

Thank you for having me, Melissa.

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