Saturday, April 30, 2011

Some mean very evil men more likable than others

Earlier this month I had two opportunities to learn more the humiliating demotion of Pluto, the distant icy world of our solar system that was unceremoniously stripped of planetary status in an August 2006 vote at an astronomy conference.

One was my first visit to the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered on Feb. 18, 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. The Flagstaff facility was established in 1894 by Boston heir Percival Lowell to further his planetary observations, first of the “canals” of Mars and then later a systematic search for the 9th planet that continued after his 1916 death.

I had hoped to visit the 13" Pluto Telescope, but we missed the last guided tour of the day. However, one of the Lowell researchers, Dr. Kim Herrmann, summarized the Pluto controversy from the standpoint of the institution most vested in its continuing survival.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It ComingThe other opportunity came from reading the 2010 book How I Killed Pluto by Prof. Mike Brown of Caltech. Dr. Brown offers a memoir of his efforts over the past decade to revisit and extend the Lowell-Tombaugh efforts using modern technology. Finding the book was pure serendipity — it was was one of the few books remaining at our local Borders, which I happened to visit three days before its planned closure.

The book was surprisingly engaging, working on three levels: a history of his planetary discoveries, as a personal memoir, and an insight into the science and politics of modern astronomy. It is my latest example of an engaging history of science, which also includes Uncertainty, a scientific history I read a few years ago about Heisenberg’s fight with Einstein over what would be known as the “uncertainty principle.”

While hinting at the Caltech astronomer’s humorous writing style — honed writing a blog about planets — the tongue-in-cheek title of Brown’s book contained more than a little hyperbole. A more accurate title would have been “How my research team's successful search for Kuiper Belt Objects accelerated the long-overdue re-classification of Pluto’s status,” but then sales would have been even less. (Being the second book by a US astronomer on Pluto’s demotion also probably didn’t help sales.)

In any event, Brown didn’t kill Pluto. Beginning in 1998, he led what became a team of three Ph.D. planetary astronomers (including Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz) and various Caltech students and staff in an incredibly successful search for objects beyond Neptune.

Using the 48-inch Schmidt telescope on Palomar Mountain (rather than its more famous 200" neighbor), and begging time on more powerful Keck and Hubble telescopes, the team discovered dozens of Kuiper Belt Objects (the book, alas, is not very precise in this regard.). The notable ones include Quaoar (June 2002), Sedna (Nov. 2004), Haumea (Dec. 2004), Eris (Jan. 2005) and Makemake (April 2005).

Their calculation that Eris (née Xena) was larger than Pluto led to its brief status as the “tenth planet” of our solar system. This put in motion a re-evaluation of what is a planet that culminated in the August 25, 2006 vote by the International Astronomical Union to create a new category of “dwarf planet,” and to demote Pluto to that status.

In fact, Brown suggests that vote was a good outcome from a bad process: while he agrees in the demotion of Pluto (and with it Eris), he disagreed with the bureaucratic definition of “planet” and how it was voted upon. The secrecy and machinations around the 2006 vote are not the only flaws of IAU governance revealed by Brown, but he appears committed to stick by the rules and processes as the best available for his profession.

Brown is well aware that pushing for reclassification of Pluto would also remove his name from the history books as a “planet” discoverer alongside Tombaugh, Le Verrier and Herschel. This is but one example of the refreshing humility of this deservedly famous planetary astronomer, whose book use self-deprecating humor and a willingness to persuade and debate rather than dictating to a lay audience.

Prior to the IAU decision, Brown evaluated the pros and cons of various possible outcomes. He worked with Caltech’s media relations department to create press releases for four specific scenarios, including the original 9 planets, the (eventual) 8 planet scenario, and one that would have promoted hundreds of planetoids (including Quaoar and Sedna) to planetary status.

As an early member of Pluto’s Facebook fan page, I certainly found the book more persuasive than the arguments of a celebrity astronomer who appeared on the Jay Leno show two years ago to flog his own book justifying Pluto’s “death.”

One reason was that Brown is the person who knows more than anyone in the world about sizable trans-Neptunian objects in our solar system. As in any field, astronomy has its sub-specialities, and you would no more consult a cosmologist on planetary discovery than a TV weatherman on global warming or a Fortune 100 CEO on staring the next Google.

Apparently being a butt-head astronomer is an occupational hazard for such celebrities. Brown is clearly a different type of famous astronomer — a real astronomer who became famous — most vividly demonstrated when he has to roll up his sleeves and do his own research after his post-doc graduates to a real job.

At the denouement of the story — the August 2006 IAU vote — Brown describes how the decision touched a nerve among a public raised in a nine-planet solar system captured by the childhood mnemonic “My very excellent mother just served up nine pizzas.” In a radio interview Brown gave to defend the outcome, one of his radio listeners suggested a replacement mnemonic — “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature” — the one that Brown recommends to this day.

Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of ScienceOverall, the book is a testament to the humility of a “hard” scientist who will be remembered in history long after most of my social scientists colleagues (and I) have been forgotten. Discovering large celestial objects people said didn’t exist is a more timeless contribution than generalizing from industrial practice in a particular time and place.

So alongside Uncertainty, I would heartily recommend How I Killed Pluto. It’s both highly entertaining and a true discoverer like Prof. Brown deserves the royalties.

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