“How I Killed Pluto” by Mike Brown

Original German Blog Post]

“Good science is a careful and deliberate process. […] The discovery itself contains little of scientific interest. Almost all of the science […] comes from studying the object in detail after discovery.”
Mike Brown

Astronomy’s objects – planets, stars, galaxies – may in fact race through the universe at unimaginable speed – watched from earth however their movements seam often rather unhurried. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, it was immediately added as ninth member to the hitherto existing eight planets, even though it was only half of our earth’s moon’s size. Therewith the solar system appeared to be somehow complete; while one object was to be predicted through Neptune’s orbit to be found beyond the eigths planet, giving thus reason for the search for the ninth planet, there where no hints for more planets.

The “tenth planet”, Eris, its discovery in 2005 making Mike Brown to one of the most famous astronomers in the world, is double the size of Pluto, with an even stronger elliptical orbit. By random, Eris was positioned rather far outside in the 1930ies; two hundred years earlier or later – and it would probably have been discovered before Pluto or at least simultaneously. Then, there would have been suddenly not one of those Trans-Neptune-Objects, but two. Wouldn’t those small boulders, in their far distance, and with their stretched orbits have been classified as planets at all, but just be counted as asteroids?

The question of time’s role in sciences, timing, the season on the one hand, patience on the other, is the actual topic of “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming”. By reporting his private life in an amusing way, by letting us witness more than ten years of his biography, the initiation of his marriage, the birth of his daughter, her first years in life, it becomes in a subtle way apparent, how slowly and laboriously the scientific work, taking place in parallel gets protracted. Similar to the celestial bodies, that he observes, the project described by Mike Brown moves along, more in decades than in years. Infinite patience while watching the sky at night and while evaluating the images in day time. The same routine for years, interrupted by the nights of the full moon.

The second aspect of time – timing, the right season – gives extreme suspense to the book. While Brown is preparing the publication of three Trans-Pluto-Objects, a team of Spanish astronomers flashes ahead by publishing their own discovery of right one of these celestial bodies. Brown, at first taking it for mere chance, shoots of his two remaining objects right the same week, steeling the show of Spanish group, for one of these two would be Eris, of remarkable size and extraordinary distance. But then, bit by bit, it becomes visible that there were inconsistencies with the Spanish publication, and even if the case was never solved finally, it looks like Brown became victim of some “espionage” among colleagues.

What ever might have been the case – the internal and external struggle about ethics in science, about the right way of publication, about the importance of review and the necessary privacy, make this book in particular worth reading. Brown thus gives enough space to the reader, to make their own mind, even if he gives a very personal point of view regarding the Spanish astronomers of course.

And in the end, a truly epic show-down takes place, when within the IAU, the International Astronomical Union, a downright fight starts, what should finally be called a planet – just the eight, up to Neptune, or every of a unknown multitude of objects up to the most remote rim of the solar system. This is not about science, but about language, and most of all, about the power of terms and names.
Wittgenstein would have had his fun.

Mike Brown: “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming”
New York (Spiegel & Grau) 2010, approx. 19,80 EUR
ISBN 978-0-385-53108-5

Further reading:
Scientific American – My first 30 years