How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
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The solar system most of us grew up with included nine planets, with Mercury closest to the sun and Pluto at the outer edge. Then, in 2005, astronomer Mike Brown made the discovery of a lifetime: a tenth planet, Eris, slightly bigger than Pluto. But instead of adding one more planet to our solar system, Brown’s find ignited a firestorm of controversy that culminated in the demotion of Pluto from real planet to the newly coined category of “dwarf” planet. Suddenly Brown was receiving hate mail from schoolchildren and being bombarded by TV reporters—all because of the discovery he had spent years searching for and a lifetime dreaming about.
A heartfelt and personal journey filled with both humor and drama, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is the book for anyone, young or old, who has ever imagined exploring the universe—and who among us hasn’t?
What was the committee thinking? Who in their right mind would declare Charon a planet? I reread the e-mail carefully. The committee, which had met in secret, was adhering to the notion that “all round things are planets,” which I had thought was a bad idea to begin with but which I at least understood and could support as a scientifically rational and consistent definition, even if a poorly chosen one. If the assembled body of astronomers thought that that was the right way to define the word planet, I would be disappointed personally, but I would get over it.
None of this was obvious when Santa/Haumea was first discovered. It just looked like a normal, albeit extra-bright, object in the Kuiper belt. David was the first to notice something strange: It got brighter and fainter every two hours, a fact that he quickly surmised was due to the fact that Haumea was oblong and tumbling end over end every four hours. Huh, we all said. Next we discovered two moons. Weird, we all thought. It wasn’t until eighteen months after the discovery that the final pieces of the puzzle came together.
The counting took a few minutes. “Mister President, we report ninety-one votes in favor. ” That didn’t seem like enough, but I couldn’t tell from the tiny webcast precisely how many astronomers were there in the auditorium. “All opposed to the resolution? ” Astronomers opposed to 5B, who wanted to firmly cap the solar system at eight planets, held up their cards. A sea of yellow filled the auditorium, which immediately erupted in applause. “I think, Mister President, a further count is not honestly needed.
Three years after the Spanish astronomers either did or did not fraudulently steal our discovery, we were officially vindicated by the IAU, which accepted our name, signaling that we appropriately deserved the credit. Sort of. On the IAU’s list, next to the newly added name Haumea, in the space reserved for the name of the discoverers, is a big blank spot. Haumea, unique among all objects in the outer solar system, has no discoverer. It simply exists. Oddly, though, for an object that no one discovered, it does have place of discovery listed.
And you know what else is funny? Santa has almost the same orbit. ” In my scientific life, most of the discoveries come as the result of seeing something for the first time. A picture appears on my screen and I suddenly know something big is out there. I know no one has ever seen it before, and I feel that little charge. This time it was different. There was no obvious picture on the screen. We were just sitting on the sofa. But instead of a little charge, I felt a full jolt of instant understanding. It all suddenly made sense.