Discovery of the Planet Johnwill

     All this recent talk about discovering new planets circling other stars reminds me of when William Blackman and I discovered a new planet when we were twelve years old. William and I had known each other since tricycling days on Phelps Avenue. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but we dredged up softball-sized rocks from the creek and laid them out neatly across Phelps to block traffic, and sure enough some lady came along in her Chevrolet and made us move them. But we soon matured and took an interest in astronomy. Both my Mom and his folks had moved, and it was a habit of mine to get invited out to his house for the weekend several times a year to watch the late Friday night Nightmare Show, to build forts and tree houses in the woods, which I didn’t have, and to sleep sometimes in his German Shepherd Flint’s aromatic doghouse, which I didn’t have either. We had one of those $1.25 science paperback books on astronomy—but you could get them on flowers and trees and rocks and bugs and other subjects appropriate for young scholars—and it gave all kinds of factual information on the planets and comets and stars and such. It predicted a few eclipses, and my first lunar eclipse was observed about two a.m. from his bedroom window, since it was cold outside. I saw my first total solar eclipse in Alaska in 1963, and another one on a camping trip in North Carolina in 1970. The fact that I remember the dates is testimony to my interest in the extraterrestrial, and by the time another one came along in the 80s or 90s, I was such a solar eclipse veteran that I could shrug them off with an air of long experienced indifference and disdain to any enthusiast who brought the upcoming one to my attention. I had a 30x table-mounted telescope, and I remember seeing the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn as a boy, drawing pictures of their nightly movements. Even in my 20s I remember tracking the progress of the fifth or sixth magnitude planet Uranus, a planet whose pronunciation you need to be pretty careful with.

     William had a 40x telescope with extension legs, and one warm night we pointed it in the direction of the Big Dipper’s handle, naturally assuming that few people had explored the nuances of that area of the constellation. Sure enough, we found exactly what we were hoping to find, a dim light object very close to the star in the bend of the handle, a new planet that we modestly named Johnwill. Well, there is a small legal controversy about that–it might be called Willjohn. William and I are still working out the priority issue. Anyway, like most planet-discoverers, we were pretty excited, and so telephoned William’s amateur-astronomer uncle with the thrilling news, and would he drop by to confirm our discovery and have the pleasure of being the third person to see the new planet. This needed to be done fairly quickly, as we were a little concerned about patents, and who knows how many other astronomers were taking advantage of this clear night with plans of claiming our discovery for themselves.

     Uncle Bob pulled in the driveway, peered through our scope, and said, “Boys, that’s the star Alcor.” It took us a minute to realize that he was serious. This was a heavy blow. Surely he was wrong. But he didn’t back up, and our dreams of astronomical fame began to drift away. Then one of us began to have the suspicion that his smile was not from sympathy but from dissembling. He was trying to trick us, and then go to the Patent Office to claim Johnwill for his own, and to re-name it after himself. We confronted him with this accusation, and darkly hinted that the police might have an interest in the matter. He protested his innocence in the strongest terms, and agreed not to challenge our patent, whenever we got it. Unfortunately, his honesty on that point was never tested, since the Patent Office informed us that they did not patent new planets, or any celestial bodies for that matter. Our subsequent letter to President Kennedy sadly went unanswered, even though I told him that I had gone to his inauguration.

John Rachal
April 11, 2011

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