Thursday, January 5, 2012

How I killed Pluto - Mike Brown

If you are older than 15, you probably learned at school that the solar system includes 9 planets. This was not always the case. In ancient times there were only seven. Seven is a good number. It is a meaningful number as there are seven days in a week. Earth was the center of the world and did not count while the Sun and the Moon did. During and after the Copernican revolution the number changed quite often. Earth become a planet but the sun and moon were deleted from the list. Then came William Herschel and discovered Uranus, then came Adams, Leverrier and Galle predicting and finding Neptune. Meanwhile more large objects were found in what's now called "The Asteroids' belt" (Ceres, Palas, Juno, Vesta) and for some time they were also counted as planets and finally Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto in 1930 making a nice (but meaningless) number of 9 Planets. Then come Mike Brown and on his pursuit to find  the tenth planet actually killed the ninth.
Mike Brown's story is detailed in his book "How I killed Pluto and why it had it coming". Well Pluto is not to blame for anything. It is just there, but Mike managed to write a story which is a great mix of: history, biography, science, philosophy and even a thriller. A thriller you might ask? Yes, chapter nine is written as a thriller and describes how private observational data was exposed on the Internet and might have been used by other researchers to get first credit for Mike's discovery (I can't resist to compare this case to James Watson and  Francis Crick who used Rosalind Franklin's data without her knowing about it to get the breakthrough they needed in their DNA research). In this chapter you will also read Mike's philosophical thoughts about science, why and when some observations must be kept secret, and why others must not.
The story reaches its climax when the International Astronomical Union (IAU), in 2006, decided what is a planet (and thus deciding if Mike discovered new planets or the opposite, reduced the number of planets by removing Pluto), and although Mike had much more to gain as a planet discoverer, he strongly felt that Pluto should not be a planet. If you need someone to blame for Pluto's fate, Mike is a good choice, and occasionally he gets a number of complaints on this issue. However, even though Pluto is not a planet, it is still important, as the rest of the distant objects out there, since their existence requires new theories about the creation of the solar system itself and Mike relates to this subject throughout the book.
As you read, you will enjoy the story, as it goes from Mike's early childhood to that of his daughter, Lilah. You do not have to be an astronomer to enjoy the book (although it helps). However, as an amateur astronomer I liked the fact that Mike is also an observer. Mike isn't just a researcher, looking through telescopes (and the biggest ones - Keck and Hubble)  and at thousands of pictures of the sky to find new planets (sorry, not planets but "dwarf planets"!). Throughout the book Mike shows us what it is to observe, he describes how much he loves to watch the moon and the planets. The book ends with Mike describing the conjunction of Venus Jupiter and the moon. It happens from time to time and I remember hosting a star party to share this experience with people from my community. Also, Mike gives a good explanation about naming the new objects he finds, and although the meaning of Haumea, Makemake, Eris and Sedna is known and written in many places, the reasoning behind giving these names is detailed in the book.

Mike's Internet site

Mike's video lecture about how he killed Pluto 

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming