How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

by Mike Brown


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385531108
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/24/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 175,606
Product dimensions: 5.24(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Mike Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. In 2006 he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World as well as one of Los Angeles magazine’s Most Influential People in L.A. He lives in Southern California with his wife and daughter.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Is a Planet?

One December night in 1999, a friend and I were sitting on a mountaintop east of San Diego inside a thirteen-story-tall dome. Only a few lights illuminated the uncluttered floor of the cavernous interior, but above you could vaguely see the bottom half of the massive Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. The Hale Telescope was, for almost fifty years, the largest telescope in the world, but from where we sat, with the weak yellow incandescent lighting being swallowed in the darkness above, you would never have guessed where you were. You might have thought you were deep in the interior of a pristine Hoover Dam, with cables and wire and pipes for directing the flow of water around. You might have believed that the steel structures around you were part of the far underground support and control of a spotlessly clean century-old subway system. Only when the entire building gently rumbled and a tiny sliver of the starry sky appeared far over your head and the telescope began to move soundlessly and swiftly to point to some new distant object in the universe, only then would you be able to make out the shadowy outline of the truss all the way to the top of the dome and realize that you were but a dot at the base of a giant machine whose only purpose was to gather the light from a single spot beyond the sky and focus it to a tiny point just over your head.

Usually when I am working at the telescope I sit in the warm, well-lit control room, looking at computer screens showing instrument readouts, staring at digital pictures just pulled from the sky, and pondering meteorological readings and forecasts for southern California. Sometimes, though, I like to step out into the cold, dark dome and stand at the very base of the telescope and look up at the sky through the tiny open sliver high overhead and see—with my own eyes—exactly what the giant machine is looking at. This December night, however, as I was sitting with my friend inside the dark dome, there was no sky to see. The dome was fastened closed, and the telescope was idle because the entire mountain was covered in cold, dripping fog.

I tend to get quite glum on nights when I’m at a telescope with the dome closed and the precious night is slipping past. An astronomer gets to use one of these biggest telescopes only a handful of nights per year. If the night is cloudy or rainy or snowy, too bad. Your night on the telescope is simply lost, and you get to try again next year. It’s hard not to think about lost time and lost discoveries as the second hand very slowly crawls through the night and your dome stays closed. Sabine—my friend—tried to cheer me up by asking about life and work, but it didn’t help. I instead told her about how my father had died that spring, and how I felt unable to really focus on my work. She finally asked me if there was anything that I was excited about these days. I paused for a few minutes. I momentarily forgot about the freezing fog and the closed dome and the ticking clock. “I think there’s another planet past Pluto,” I told her.

Another planet? Such a suggestion would have generally been scoffed at by most astronomers in the last days of the twentieth century. While it is true that for much of the last century astronomers had diligently searched for a mythical “Planet X” beyond Pluto, by about 1990 they had more or less convinced themselves that all that searching in the past had been in vain; Planet X simply did not exist. Astronomers were certain that they had a pretty good inventory of what the solar system contained, of all of the planets and their moons, and of most of the comets and asteroids that circled the sun. There were certainly small asteroids still to be discovered, and occasionally a bright comet that had never been seen before would come screaming in from the far depths of space, but certainly nothing major was left out there to find. Serious discussions by serious astronomers of another planet beyond Pluto were as likely as serious discussions by serious geologists on the location of the lost continent of Atlantis. What kind of an astronomer would sit underneath one of the biggest telescopes in the world and declare, “I think there’s another planet past Pluto”?


Almost a decade earlier, in the late summer of 1992, I was in the long middle years of my graduate studies at Berkeley (the place where I was taught that Planet X certainly did not exist and that we already knew pretty much everything we needed to know about what there was in the solar system). I didn’t think much about Planet X those days. I was midway through a Ph.D. dissertation about the planet Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io. When you’re midway through a Ph.D. dissertation, your mind acquires narrow blinders, so I didn’t think much about anything other than Io and how its volcanoes spewed material into space and affected Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. I had so few thoughts to spare for most of the quotidian universe that I had fallen into a pattern of every day eating the same lunch at the same coffee shop right next to the Berkeley campus and having dinner at the same burrito stand a block away. At night I would ride my bicycle back down toward the San Francisco Bay to the marina where I lived on a tiny sailboat. The next morning I would start all over again. Less time thinking about what and where to eat and sleep meant more time thinking about Io and volcanoes and Jupiter and how they all fit together.

But, occasionally, even obsessive Ph.D. students need a break.

One afternoon, as on many times previous, after spending too much time staring at data on my computer screen and reading technical papers in dense journals and writing down thoughts and ideas in my black bound notebooks, I opened the door of my little graduate student office on the roof of the astronomy building, stepped into the enclosed rooftop courtyard, and climbed the metal stairs that went to the very top of the roof to an open balcony. As I stared at the San Francisco Bay laid out in front of me, trying to pull my head back down to the earth by watching the boats blowing across the water, Jane Luu, a friend and researcher in the astronomy department who had an office across the rooftop courtyard, clunked up the metal stairs and looked out across the water in the same direction I was staring. Softly and conspiratorially she said, “Nobody knows it yet, but we just found the Kuiper belt.”

I could tell that she knew she was onto something big, could sense her excitement, and I was flattered that here she was telling me this astounding information that no one else knew.

“Wow,” I said. “What’s the Kuiper belt?”

It’s funny today to think that I had no idea what she was talking about. Today if you sat next to me on an airplane and asked about the Kuiper belt, I might talk for hours about the region of space beyond Neptune where vast numbers of small icy objects circle the sun in cold storage and about how, occasionally, one of them comes plummeting into the inner part of the solar system to light up the skies like a comet. I might talk about the very edge of the solar system, where millions of little icy bodies never quite got gathered up into one big planet but instead stayed strewn in the disk surrounding the solar system. And I might tell you a little history, about how in the early 1990s no one had seen such a thing as this Kuiper belt, but a small group of astronomers who had predicted its existence had named the region the Kuiper belt after Dutch American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who had speculated about its existence decades earlier. And finally, if you were still listening and the plane had not yet landed, I would tell you how this Kuiper belt was finally seen, for the first time, in the late summer of 1992, and how I first learned about it on the roof of the Berkeley astronomy building a day before it appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

But when Jane told me she had just found the Kuiper belt, I didn’t know any of this. Jane explained. She had not found this vast collection of bodies beyond Neptune, exactly, but simply a single small icy body circling the sun well beyond the orbit of Pluto. The body was tiny—much, much smaller than Pluto—and as far as anyone knew for sure, it might have circled the sun all alone at the edge of the solar system. But still, exciting, right?

Cute, I thought. But it’s just one tiny object, and it’s farther away than Pluto. How could that matter?

So I nodded and listened and, like any diligent Ph.D. student midway through a dissertation, eventually walked back down the stairs, stepped into my office, and reentered the world of Jupiter and Io and volcanoes, where I actually resided.

I was wrong, of course. Even though the object discovered was only a lonely, relatively tiny ball of ice orbiting beyond Pluto, it showed that astronomers had been wrong: They didn’t actually know everything; there were things still to be found at the edge of our own solar system. Some astronomers were reluctant to consider this new possibility seriously, and they dismissed the discovery as nothing more than a fluke that presaged absolutely nothing. But soon, as more and more astronomers became excited about the possibility of discovery and started searching the regions beyond Pluto, more and more of these small bodies began to be found.

By the end of 1999, on the foggy December night when Sabine and I were sitting underneath the Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory and I was proclaiming that I thought there were new planets to be found, astronomers around the world had already discovered almost five hundred of these bodies in a vast disk beyond the orbit of Neptune in what looked very much indeed like the Kuiper belt. From being something that most astronomers had perhaps heard of once or twice, the Kuiper belt had become the hottest new field of study within the solar system.

Of the five hundred bodies that were then known in the Kuiper belt in 1999, most were relatively small, maybe a few hundred miles across, but a few moderately large objects had also been found. The largest known at the time was somewhere around a third the size of Pluto. A third the size of Pluto! Pluto had always enjoyed a somewhat mythical status as a lonely oddball at the edge of the solar system, but it turned out that it had more company than astronomers had originally thought.

Over the years since I had dismissed the entire Kuiper belt as not quite interesting enough to pull my mind away from Jupiter, I had actually been thinking a bit about Pluto and about those five hundred small icy bodies recently discovered in the distant solar system. By now it seemed to me inevitable that, whether anyone realized it or not, astronomers were on an unstoppable march that would eventually lead to a tenth planet. It seemed to me obvious that it was there, slowly circling the sun, just waiting for the moment when someone somewhere pointed a telescope at the right spot, noticed something that hadn’t been there earlier, and suddenly announced to an unsuspecting world that our solar system had more than nine planets.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Pluto Dies vii

1 What Is a Planet? 3

2 A Millennium of Planets 18

3 The Moon Is My Nemesis 29

4 The Second-Best Thing 54

5 An Icy Nail 62

6 The End of the Solar System 86

7 Raining = Pouring 113

8 Lilah, an Intermission 135

9 The Tenth Planet 144

10 Stealing the Show 162

11 Planet or Not 182

12 Mean Very Evil Men 204

13 Discord and Strife 231

Epilogue: Jupiter Moves 255

Acknowledgments 261

Index 263

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How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
CFHinLA More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Just the right amount of science, intrigue, humor, drama and a healthy dose life, love and family. It was a nice departure from the more dry astronomy books I've read lately. I would recommend it to anyone looking for some science mixed in with fun. @ Pbaum: You make valid points about some of the errors in the book (Thor being one) but you must consider who the target audience is for this book. This isn't a scientific draft, this is a book that laymen and older children can read and actually grasp. If the title and cover art didn't get that accross to you I don't know what would. Lastly, when you reference Keck not being the largest telescope, you are correct but with a caveat. You fail to mention that at the time Mike Brown made his discoveries Keck WAS the largest telescope(s). The GTC didn't come on line until July 2009, almost five years after the discoveries were made. You're splitting hairs where it isn't necessary.
RobertP on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Interesting, and one picks up a bit of astronomy on the side. Good for the author.
bragan on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Mike Brown is the discoverer of several smallish icy bodies out on the edge of the solar system, including three that have received a fair amount of attention: Quaoar, Sedna, and Eris (originally nicknamed Xena). That third one turned out to be slightly bigger than Pluto, thus precipitating the debate over astronomical definitions that eventually led to Pluto being downgraded from a planet to a mere "dwarf planet." Brown himself was a big advocate of "killing Pluto," despite the fact that it also meant losing the chance to be heralded as the only living discoverer of a planet. In this book he explains why, puts the concept of "planet" in scientific and historical context, and talks at length about his own discoveries and how they were made. The case he makes for the reclassification of Pluto is excellent, and he explains all the science involved in very clear, easy-to-understand terms, often with a dash of humor. His descriptions of his own research are also engaging and give the reader a good sense of how science is really done, complete with months of horrible tedium, moments of incredible excitement, and the occasional annoying controversy over who gets credit. And the way he ties together his professional and his personal life -- he proposed to his wife the same week Quaoar was discovered, and the existence of Eris was announced only three weeks after the birth of his daughter -- provides a nice touch of human interest. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in the subject.
csayban on LibraryThing 6 months ago
3.0 starsBasically, nine plus one equals eight. Really? In the case of the discovery of the mythical tenth planet¿yes! When in 2005, Cal Tech astronomer Mike Brown fulfilled his lifelong goal of finding Eris, a planet slightly larger than Pluto far off on the edge of the solar system, he had no idea the controversy that his discovery would spawn. Stanger yet, Brown was on the side of booting Pluto ¿ along with Eris ¿ out of the planet club. The result was that the normally passive world of astronomy became a hotbed of disagreement, outrage and anger over what really is a planet. How I Killed Pluto is far from the typical non-fictional fact-checking of scientific discovery. In fact, as a fan of scientific discovery, I found it a bit light on actual scientific content. Brown does a good job of detailing the processes he and his team used to find the objects that they discovered, but there was very little detail about the objects themselves. I¿m not sure if this is because they just haven¿t yet learned much about them, but I would have really liked to have learned more about these never before known objects on the fringe of our solar system. This is definitely intended to be a book for the masses. Brown takes on the hefty challenge of not allowing his book to become a dry, scientific paper by interweaving his own life events within the context of the narrative of discoveries. His is a quirky personality that shines through and makes the book at the very least a fun and sometimes funny read. His struggles as a new parent provide some of the biggest laughs.¿Those early weeks were a blur. Like most new parents, I slept no more than two or three hours at the longest. How tired was I? One morning I piled a load of laundry into the washing machine, scooped a plastic cup of laundry detergent from the box, and poured it into the receptacle in the washing machine. The detergent filled the receptacle and then spilled over the edges. This had never happened before. I had never scooped out more detergent than could fit in the receptacle. I thought hard. I stared at the detergent. I stared at the object in my hand. It was not a small detergent scoop, but a big plastic cup. Why would there be a big plastic cup in the detergent box? I read the side of the detergent box, then it became clear that this was not detergent but kitty litter. I had just loaded the washing machine full of kitty litter. I pondered what would happen if I started the washing machine with the kitty litter inside ¿ the clumping kind! ¿ and then spent the next thirty minutes trying desperately to get every last bit of litter out of the machine. Then I went to get some sleep; I could do laundry later.¿ ¿ pages 138-139.While the personal stories ground the scientific process in a more human tone, it creates a feel of two different stories being told on the same page. How I Killed Pluto, as its tongue-in-cheek title gives away, is more Vaudeville than Vanderbilt. This is not a comprehensive treaty on the state of modern astronomy as much as it is an entertaining biography of what it is to be a pioneering scientist with real world responsibilities and distractions. While not the sort of work that will bring people a deep and comprehensive understanding of the universe, it is highly readable and entertaining.
Jenners26 on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Brief Description: If, like me, you never really understood why poor Pluto lost its planet-hood, this book by astronomer Mike Brown will explain it to you. After all, he is the one who helped ¿murder¿ Pluto with his discoveries of several rather large Kuiper Belt objects. If you think astronomy is a staid and unchanging science, this book will turn that assumption on its head as we learn how Brown¿s discoveries led to intrigue, scandal and controversy ¿ as well as murder (of Pluto¿s planet-hood. Not an astronomer. It isn¿t that controversial.)My Thoughts: I¿ll admit that the title of this book was what ultimately convinced me to give it a try as it struck a note of humor that I look for in my scientific reading. Plus I¿d never fully understood exactly WHY Pluto suddenly wasn¿t a planet anymore and I wanted to know. The book was a truly enjoyable listen¿full of gentle humor, plenty of science explained in a way that non-sciencey people (like myself) can understand, and enough personal stuff (Brown¿s marriage and the birth of his first daughter) to balance out the astronomy stuff. Besides learning about the demise of Pluto (which I now wholeheartedly support), I very much enjoyed hearing about what an astronomer¿s life is like (lots of trips to Hawaii), how statistics can be applied (rather amusingly) to the development of a newborn, and the fascinating system that exists for naming celestial objects. It was a pleasurable trip into a field I know virtually nothing about, and it inspired me to start paying closer attention to the nighttime skies. I listened to the audio version of this book, and it was a delight. Ryan Gesell did an excellent job capturing Brown¿s humor, dedication and desire to educate the world about our solar system.
porch_reader on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Mike Brown is an astronomer who searches for objects in the Kuiper Belt, beyond Pluto. When he found Eris, an object slightly larger than Pluto, the definition of a planet was called into question. In the end, Eris was not named the tenth planet. Instead, Pluto had its planet status revoked. And school children everywhere sent Mike Brown hate mail. But that's just the bare bones of the story. Mike Brown does a much better job of recounting Pluto's demise in this witty, engaging book. Along the way, we learn a lot about advances in astronomy, the process of naming objects in space, and the challenges of deciding when to announce a discovery. Because Mike welcomed his daughter Lilah about the time of his discovery, we also get some insight into his family life. (This is the part of the book that convinced me that Mike Brown is a good guy - definitely not deserving of the Pluto-related hate mail.) Even if you only have a causal interest in space, this is a book that is worth reading.
TerriBooks on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Did you learn the names of the planets with "My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas"? Here is the story of why our children will be learning about an excellent mother who serves Nachos instead. Mike Brown, with the care of a teacher, the passion of a scientist, and the voice of a friend whiling away the afternoon over a great cup of coffee, has written a delightful book that makes us understand both planetary astronomy and the hectic life of a career academic. Often I laughed aloud at his off-hand comments and very funny observations. Brown's delight in his work and his universe are matched by the interwoven story of his wife and daughter. I enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone with a curiosity about our solar system.
TheLiteraryPhoenix More than 1 year ago
I don’t usually go looking for memoirs. And I definitely don’t seek out science books. For as fascinated as I am by science fiction, reading actual scientific fact usually bores me. I want adventure! I want the high seas and forbidden magic! Something! The fact that How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming landed on my TBR at all was uncanny – the fact that it survived four years on my TBR without being cut is a miracle. I’m really glad it did, because I found this book informative and fascinating. In short, this is the story of Mike Brown and his journey to discover Eris (the “tenth planet”) which eventually led to the demotion of Pluto. He explains the procedure behind using telescopes and searching for “wanderers” in the sky with enough to detail to enlighten the uneducated reader (me) but not so much that it’s tedious. Mix in the story of his marriage and first child, and this was an easy read. It’s also a bit embarrassing, but I learned way more about astronomy from this book than I did from my high school and college science classes. This book was added to my TBR because I like Pluto. It was a good planet. There was a Disney dog involved. It was sad and far away and needed loving. After listening to this book, I’m no longer bitter about the demotion, not even nostalgic… not really. Brown presents his case pretty well here, and he makes it interesting. There’s even a little bit of drama with a stolen discovery to add a dramatic twist. How many memoirs actually have a nemesis? It was great. If you’re interested in astronomy at all, Brown describes the tangled conundrum that is the definition of “planet.” the various bodies in our solar system, and even the process of naming a planet (there are rules!). It was all laid out in an interesting way, and doubly good as the narrator did a particularly excellent job making the reading engaging. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone still sore about Pluto, interested in astronomy, or just curious for a great real life tale involving planets and toddlers. Also, just a thought, this would make a decent movie. Tom Hanks could play Mike Brown.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mike shares a compelling tale of scientic discovery and fatherhood. Best book I have read in while!
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Hai. I gtg go eat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Can u tell people to come and talk here from the other zomie book?
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I dont think theyll listen to me....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sits silently.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Okay ill be back then!! *disappearz*
IneffableInexorable More than 1 year ago
This here was a fun, easy read, serving as both a memoir and informative on the situation surrounding Pluto.
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Never mind
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