22Dec2015

The Man Who Killed Pluto

Mike Brown is the ultimate Terminator. He has become famous for killing Pluto – remember that ex-planet that came after Neptune.

The majority of people reading this grew up calling Pluto the ninth planet in the solar system. But what he actually wants to be remembered as is not a killer but a “discoverer of new worlds”. The man who wrote ‘How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming,’ has also had the rare opportunity of naming what could have been the 10th planet, had Pluto not been demoted to be a non-planet. He called it Eris.

“It’s the Greek god of discord and strife,” he told the Business Standard in a brief interview on the sidelines of the Goa Thinkfest, a Ted-Talks-meets-literature-festival sort of confluence of minds, being organised jointly by Tehelka and Newsweek magazines.

How appropriate – given the firestorm of debate and controversy – was the decision to finally “kill” Pluto in August 2006 and demote it from being a planet to a “dwarf planet”? But Brown, a professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, says he was only looking for new planets – something he’s been doing since the late 1990s. The search just became more earnest from 2001, re-energised by the hope that newer technology could revolutionise and sharpen it. So, he aimed for the stars there, literally. Which astronomer wouldn’t like to have “discoverer of planets” on his resume?

“Then we found a very large object, much larger than Pluto,” says Brown, excitement still there in his voice, even after almost six years of the discovery. It finally came down to this: Either the astronomer community would have to agree that this was the 10th planet, or Pluto would have to go.

“The thing was, Pluto was incredibly small, barely two-thirds the size of the moon, and, unlike the other planets, its orbit was tilted and elliptical” by several degrees, which made Brown more suspicious.

How about going by the actual definition of a planet, I ask him? Well, it turns out, there is none. “There was no definition, none at all,” says Brown, which is what made it so hard for his astronomer colleagues to reach a decision. “Plus, no one wanted to demote Pluto”. People were just too used to having it as the ninth planet. “In fact, I didn’t think astronomers had the guts to do it,” he says. But, they finally did, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the summer of 2006, the International Astronomical Union met in Prague and hotly debated the issue. The result: Pluto lost its planethood and ended up being redefined as a dwarf planet — a victory of scientific reasoning over historical and cultural influences in some ways.

What helped was that after Eris, astronomers began to discover more Pluto-like objects. So, if Eris was truly to be considered a planet, so would have to be, perhaps, several others in the same solar space.

The man whose day job begins at night must just be passionate about his job – after all, he needs to be awake all night, when the rest of his world is asleep, to unravel the secrets of the universe. It was probably this passion – or the fact that he was going to be the only planet-killer we’re likely to see in our lifetime – that persuaded the Time magazine to name him among its 100 most influential people in 2006.

Currently, he is busy trying to put his “terminator” status behind him and focus on the tougher task – of analysing his find. What Brown says he finds very unusual about Pluto and Eris, however, is that despite being right next to each other – relatively close by solar system standards – and almost the same size, Eris is more than 25 per cent heavier than Pluto. This means that the composition of the two planets must be very different, he says, though right now he hasn’t yet figured out what that is.

“If I’m able to find out what this difference is, why it’s there, what it means, it could be the most incredibly profound thing. That may be able to explain so much about the entire solar system,” he says, his eyes shining with anticipation through his glasses. Yes, Brown is your typical geek – these are the things that excite him and keep him up at night (besides star-gazing.) But it’s people like him who may one day solve one of our universe’s deepest mysteries.

This is Brown’s first visit to India, but like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, he’s promised to be back. Source: Business Standard

Robin says:

great story Dave

Dave says:

This is probably the most unpopular decision made in the history of astronomy!

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