June 7, 2020

Review: How I Killed Pluto & Why it Had it Coming by Mike Brown.

Target: Pluto?

Caltech Astronomer Mike Brown is on the cutting edge of modern day “faint fuzzy” hunting at the fringe of the solar system and has found himself at the epicenter of several scientific battles over the past decade. In How I Killed Pluto & Why it Had it Coming, Dr. Brown takes us behind the scenes of his discoveries and, after a brief history of solar system exploration, takes us on a deeply personal tale of modern discovery and a fascinating look at how modern astronomy in the Internet era gets done. Intertwined with the tale of successive discoveries in the outer solar system is an intimate look at Mike’s personal world, his family, and how a scientist and his family operates… just think, how many of us personally know a true scientist, in our families or on the block? (OK, I know a few, mostly because I blog about their exploits!) Perhaps a few of us may personally know what I would dub “para-scientists” (i.e. doctors, teachers, engineers, etc) but in How I Killed Pluto we get a glimpse of the human side of these researchers and how they work in the exploration of the universe with grocery shopping, diaper changing, and the world the rest of us might be all too familiar with.

Of course, it was the discovery of 2003 UB313 and the subsequent controversy leading up to the IAU’s decision to adopt a resolution that expelled Pluto from the ranks of major-planetdom that subsequently sparked the ire of fifth graders everywhere and is the focus of much of the book. Mike Brown and team also made several other fascinating discoveries outlined in the book, including Quaoar, Sedna, Huamea and Makemake, the last two informally named “Santa” and “Easterbunny”, respectively. In the case of Santa, a Spanish team attempted to steal the discovery from the Caltech team by accessing the pointing data from the camera attached to the telescope! Mr. Brown also uses this example to demonstrate how the propriety of scientific research must be preserved and the tale also serves as a warning of how even carefully made discoveries can be sureptiously scooped! Dr. Brown brings us along on that thrill of discovery… just think what it means to be the first human eyes to spot something new drifting, out there. There’s that moment before you tell the world that the knowledge is yours, that brief rush that I feel propels many a researcher.

Is Pluto a planet? Should we have a solar system with potentially hundreds planets, or an elite 8? Mr. Brown makes a point to demonstrate that he in fact would have the most to gain if his discovery of Xena-turned-Eris received planet-hood; but his opposition to its inclusion shows his integrity and appeal to scientific method. It’s a brave new solar system out there, and objects both on the large and small end of the spectrum will no doubt stretch the definition, whatever it may be. Perhaps the term “planet” will remain a cultural one; perhaps sub-classifications will arise where we can safely say “Captain, we’re approaching a Class M planet…” ala Star Trek. Objects such as Pluto and Eris will remain what they are, regardless of how we try to pigeon-hole them. Mr. Brown also points out that you can’t codify scientific definitions like you can legal law, and the idea to “teach the controversy” is a path already taken by creationist nonsense. As proof, ask an astronomer what his or her definition of a “metal” is sometime…

Do put How I Killed Pluto on the top of your summer reading list, whatever your stance on the controversy is. My gut feeling is the discussion will rear its head again when we get a good look at Pluto in 2015 during the New Horizons flyby, or perhaps when a new “King of the Kuiper belt” is crowned… one thing is for sure, Dr. Brown’s solar system ain’t the one you learned in 2nd grade!


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