February 2011

Richard Wirick


How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

My 6-year-old daughter was just learning the solar system when Pluto -- represented in her classroom mobile by a tiny purplish marble -- was suddenly disinvited from the venerable club of planets. Mike Brown, the monster who committed this act, has written an engaging memoir,  How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, to explain exactly why the furthest ice-ball got its pink slip.

The reason was that it wasn’t the farthest. He and other Caltech astronomers had discovered a tenth, larger planet, Eris. The only solution was to open the game to an additional orb, or to somehow disestablish the status of the smaller planet, relegating it to the newly coined category of a “dwarf” planet. At home that night, my daughter looked as though a pet hamster had died, and we held hands and wanted to commemorate but somehow found ourselves with nothing to say, no song to sing. How and why did this all happen, and why does the normally sedate discipline of astronomy care?

Brown resists the detachment to which science popularizations sometimes fall prey, and his book sparkles with a humor and charm that make much of astronomy’s mundanity seem worth it for a discovery of this magnitude. He warmly acknowledges the work of colleagues such as Chadwick Trujillo and David Rabinowitz, and shows -- much as do his essayist mentors such as Lewis Thomas and John McPhee -- how no scientific discovery is accomplished in isolation, but is rather the work of numerous very creative risk-takers bouncing up against the walls of a stubborn, long-established paradigm.

As with a lot of disease research and health science advancements, there is an abundance of jealousy and dishonesty in astronomical experimentation and the publication of its results. Brown describes the race to flesh out the distant rims of the solar system with new telescopes and orbital tracers, and expresses suspicion that a Spanish scientist and his team may well have been spying on the telescope positions of Brown’s own, highly secretive research crew. He explains, and makes surprisingly exciting, the international Astronomy Union’s 2006 conference, in which proposals were made to include twelve planets -- adding, along with Eris, the asteroid Ceres, and Pluto’s moon Charon -- and opted instead for the category of a dwarf planet. The reason is that a band of aspirant “planets” called the Kuiper belt was discovered some years ago, just past Neptune, which are “small bands of icy objects [that] circle the sun in cold storage” and which are leftovers from the Big Bang, crumbs flaking off from the larger bodies we think of as star and planets and their moons.

Brown’s book is given a human dimension by his marriage and the birth of his daughter during the course of this enemy-generating upheaval. Night after night of using the mightiest telescopes on the ground, in addition to the Hubble Space Telescope, are countered with watching his infant grow into a toddler, and that girl to in turn start the kindergarten and primary school’s first dabbling in the heavens as we know them -- or thought we did. He is engaging when describing his scientist’s propensity for exactitude running up against the uncertainty of the ob-gyn doctors’ inability to precisely pinpoint the day of his child’s birth. The pattern is repeated at Caltech faculty dinners, where Mars-Venus driven discussions overshadow astronomical retinue:

Most had kids. Most of the fathers were scientists. Most of the mothers were not. As soon as I started my rant, the fathers would all join in: “Yeah! I could never get that question answered, either,” and they would bring up obscure statistical points of their own. The mothers would all roll their eyes, lean in toward Diane, and whisper, “I am so sorry. I know just how you feel,” and inquire as to how she was feeling and sleeping and how Petunia kicked and squirmed.

Undaunted, Brown tracks his sleepless first nights with his infant with statistical correlations, scraps of paper and lines made on graph paper -- beautifully colored plot trails that that calculated the child’s sleeping times, eating times, crying times, and lengths of sleep and amounts eaten. Her doing little more than merely sleep and eat and cry was, to him, the “most fascinating thing in the entire universe.”

His immersion in child-rearing makes Brown dub new orbs in the Kuiper belt with names like “Santa” and “Easter Bunny” and such, and pretty soon his affability grows on you. If Brown’s daughter wants to have a play date with mine, I’d strongly consider it, and would try to forget the crepe we hung on the French doors and the silence of our bowed heads at the departure of something we’d known and taken for granted ever since we first looked up at the sky. He ends up not being such a monster, and appears compelled to simply give us a hard truth about the role of taxonomies and classifications in any hard science. We decide we can live with our long-lost, bluish snowball’s relegation to the extra-solar bench of wallflowers.

But still...

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN: 0385531087
288 Pages