Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

Book Review: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

January 4, 2011

This review is for The California Tech, where it should appear later this week. You can listen to the full audio of my interview with Mike Brown here

Amazon Link

If you read enough pop sci books, you’ll learn that black holes ain’t so black and that our genes are selfish. Along the way, you’ll pick up a few tidbits about the lives and research of Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins. If you read enough memoirs by scientists you’ll learn that Feynman could crack the safes at Los Alamos (and knew the codes for something else men want to access), or that James Watson didn’t use modesty to discover the secret of life. You’ll also get a few tidbits about the character of physical law or the structure of the double helix. But if you read Mike Brown’s new book, you’ll learn that a scientist’s work and a scientist’s life are separate but inextricable, that the motion of the planets really can affect the path of a life, and that sometimes there is no distinction between teacher and raconteur.

“The amusing thing that I get now,” Brown told me about the hate mail he’s received since publishing How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, “are these obscene phone messages.” He’s smiling as he tells the story. “They sound like drunk fraternity boys who were probably thirteen when Pluto got demoted. They were pissed off then and now they’re drunk and pissed off.”

Brown, of course, did not kill Pluto. It’s still there, and still cold. What he really did was help it. He found it some friends. “The singular thing for which I am most famous is the discovery of Eris,” he said. “It’s not the most important thing I’ve done, scientifically. I don’t think there’s any question that the discovery of Sedna and this whole story I’ve been telling you is far and away the most important thing.”

Brown has been telling me the story about his discovery of several large Kuiper Belt objects – balls of rock and ice orbiting in slow, frigid ellipses beyond Neptune. Eris and Sedna are among them. Using the nearly-derelict 48-inch Schmidt Telescope at the Palomar observatory, Brown and his teams conducted several surveys of the outer solar system to search for these objects. His first search failed. His second did not.

They first discovered Quaoar, then Sedna, an object somewhat smaller than Pluto, but scientifically fascinating due to its extremely distant orbit, which separates it gravitationally from the influences of the gas giants. “Sedna never comes close [to the gas giants], and if you integrate the orbit backwards for 4.5 billion years, it never did,” Brown explains.

Since Sedna can maintain its orbit unmolested, it serves as the Solar System’s time capsule. “It’s this window into the earliest Solar System – into the formation of the Solar System. This is what really excites me. I want to understand what the earliest Solar System was like, how it led to what we have today, and what it tells us about the formation of other plantery systems. These objects out there are, I think, the best tools for understanding that we have.”

In other words, Brown wants another story to tell. He’s been hitting me with them since I entered his office, leaning in to tell me the good parts, then suddenly swiveling back from his desk, calling up online pictures of the Russian Venera lander’s panoramic photos of Venus, and holding them up next to an ultrasound of his daughter for comparison.

How I Killed Pluto is a repository of Brown’s stories. It recounts his obsessive data-recording and analysis, not of planetary motion, but of his infant daughter’s sleeping and eating schedules. Other anecdotes discuss the way Jupiter and Saturn looked on the epiphanous night when he first understood that the planets really are hanging up there in the sky, or just how relaxed his post-doc Chad Trujillo was when he announced their first Kuiper Belt discovery, or the gradual evolution from disappointment, to inkling mistrust, to deep suspicion as he learned that a particular discovery was perhaps not scooped, but stolen by a team of researchers in Spain. We learn Brown’s opinions on the weather near telescopes (nasty), the moon (his nemesis), living in the woods (good deal for a single guy), and, of course, whether Pluto should be called a planet (definitely not).

“I find that stories draw people in more,” Brown says. All the major events in his life – the beginning of his career at Caltech, his courtship and marriage, and the start of his family – occurred during the few years surrounding his search for planets past Pluto. For Brown, the personal context of the search is as important as the scientific context. If the book is about how he killed Pluto, it’s necessarily about those personal stories as well.

Brown says that even “scientific papers are more compelling and more readable when they have a story that they’re telling. Even if it’s a scientific story with data and analysis, it’s better if it’s a story.”

And if ever there has been a great story in need of telling, it’s the story of how a ball of gas twirling in deep space collapsed to form the Sun, the planets, and all rest of our Solar System. “It’s a huge set of phenomena. If you want to understand the entire Solar System and why it is the way it is, you need to understand details from quantum physics to organic chemistry to hydrodynamics to electrical discharge. I mean, there’s so many crazy things that go on that you’ll never be able to put all these pieces together in a predictive way and say, ‘I know exactly what happened.’”

Brown believes that careful scientific study of Kuiper Belt objects can still help fill in pieces of that story. For example, astronomical evidence from analyzing their orbits is currently giving insight into the mechanism of planet formation and whether the Sun formed in a cluster of other stars.

A story, to Brown, is not just a trick to hold your interest. It’s the essence of science, an active process of discovery. He told me that to write about science, “I walk though the whole process of how I think about it, and why I come to that conclusion. I think it’s much more interesting to understand the process, in addition to just saying, ‘Here’s the answer.’”

Brown doubled the number of words he’s written, lifetime, in writing How I Killed Pluto. The effort will be repaid in full as thousands of people learn how mysterious our Solar System still is. Our understanding continues to evolve, with new evidence like that of Brown’s discoveries continually challenging and inspiring our stories about the Solar System. Brown, with his hallmark enthusiasm and joviality, tells me, “We’re really starting to be able to not as much rewrite those stories, as write them for the first time.”


Mike Brown, Planet Killer: “Mercury is Pissing Me Off”

December 19, 2010

Mike Brown is famous for discovering Eris, a dwarf planet larger than Pluto orbiting out on the far edge of the solar system. Ultimately, Eris’ discovery led to the redefinition of the word “planet” and the eradication of Pluto from children’s lunchboxes.

Brown’s new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming tells the story of his team’s discovery of a complete menagerie out past Neptune – a place most astronomers thought held little but hydrogen, comets, and a few bits of rock that occasionally get flung out there by gas giants.

In an interview from last Wednesday, December 15, Brown told me that his most scientifically-important discovery was not Eris, but Sedna, a large object lying so far away from the gravitational perturbations of Jupiter and friends that its orbit can be traced back to the beginning of the solar system, and whose existence has challenged astronomers’ conception of how the planets formed.

Brown also showed me the sonograms of his embryonic daughter (now 5 years old) to compare side-by-side with photographs of Venus taken by the Venera Lander, and commented on the gravitational influence of my mother.

Part 1 (17 minutes: Hate mail, the process of writing, science of the early solar system)

Part 2 (31 minutes: More science, more writing, international intrigue, Pluto’s appeal and wimpiness)

Let’s Read the Internet! week 6

November 24, 2008

Becoming Screen Literate
Kevin Kelly in The New York Times

I am not screen-literate. My first reaction to this article was to think the barrier to becoming screen-literate was still rather high – there’s a learning curve associated with using the video technology Kelly is writing about. Not all that many people are skilled at video editing, but nearly everyone can write. But then I realized that not that many people put much effort into becoming “screen literate”, whereas everyone in America is forced to write extensively in school for many years.

So what are the consequences of “visualcy” dominating over literacy? Is it a Brave-New-World-esque degeneration into overstimulation, short attention spans, and a intellectual hedonism, or a improvement in the efficiency with which we can absorb, process, and create new information that leads to higher levels of creativity, collaboration, productivity, and better life?

The Plan
Jack Handey in The New Yorker

Garrett Lisi’s Exceptional Approach to Everything
Greg Boustead in Seed

They forgot to draw his hair. Also, this story would be more inspiring if Lisi’s work were broadly considered by other physicists to be a meaningful step forward in theoretical physics. His work has gotten far more media attention than attention from his colleagues.

Chicks Dig Scars
Finally, a good reason to cut yourself.

Cool Things the Greeks Did in Astronomy
Dot Physics

How are you supposed to measure the distance to the Sun? Turns out it’s more than a million hot dogs end to end. Of course, hot dogs shrink a little as you cook them by putting them closer to the sun, but still, it’s a lot. How did they count that high anyway?

New Problem: Surface Brightness

November 6, 2008

When I began studying gravitational lensing, I was told that a gravitational lens preserves a quantity called “surface brightness”. This is defined as the flux per unit area. In other words, if you look at the sun from out at Pluto, it’s very dim. But if you receive \frac{1}{1000} as much light at Pluto, it’s because the size of the sun in the sky is \frac{1}{1000} what it is here, not because it’s gotten intrinsically dimmer. The stars are just as bright here as they are right up close. They look really small, though (so small even a big space telescope like Hubble can’t see any details on a star (except the Sun, of course)).

Even though gravitational lensing can bend light and thereby make a star seem bigger in the sky, it cannot make it seem intrinsically brighter. The same is true for normal optics. A magnifying glass can make the words on a page larger, but if the lights in the room are dim the magnifying glass cannot make anything brighter.

Question: why not?

Hint: you don’t need to know anything about optics or gravity to answer this question, except that lenses and gravitational potential are completely passive. That is, they only bend light, not create it or change it.

Let’s Read the Internet! week 4

November 2, 2008

2008 Eureka Prize for Science Photography
New Scientist

Why Are Female Blue Tits Unfaithful?
from Living the Scientific Life

Okay, so you don’t have to actually read this article, which has something to do with sexual selection in birds (really? birds? after a title like that?). As with Danielle Steele or eviction notices, the first line or two is good enough.

Spooky Images From Outer Space
New Scientist

That’s no Death Star. That’s a small moon!

A Programmer’s View Of the Universe
Steve Yegge on Stevey’s Blog Rants

I can’t figure out what this essay has to do with programming. As far as I can tell, it’s about fish. Also, something with a metaphor. Fish as a metaphor for life. Because we need more things that are metaphors for life. Here’s a question for you: if the fish is a metaphor for life, who’s going to be a metaphor for the fish? See, not even the Lorax dared to ask that one.

I like reading essays in which people attempt to come to grips with the biggest problems they face. Problems of unspeakable complexity are an example, as is fish ownership. What interested me most was the following take on facing big problems:

In time, though, programming eventually humbles you, because it shows you the limits of your reasoning ability in ways that few other activities can match. Eventually every programmer becomes entangled in a system that is overwhelming in its complexity. As we grow in our abilities as programmers we learn to tackle increasingly complex systems. But every human programmer has limits, and some systems are just too hard to grapple with.

When this happens, we usually don’t blame ourselves, nor think any less of ourselves. Instead we claim that it’s someone else’s fault, and it just needs a rewrite to help manage the complexity.

I do not interpret big problems this way. When I face a problem I can’t solve, I generally have one of two reactions. One is to be humbled, but by “humbled” I mean some more along the lines of “temporarily lose all sense of self-worth”. The other is to ignore the problem, or pretend that it is solved, or pretend that it is not important or that I will easily solve it tomorrow. Never do I adopt the tack of assuming that the fault lies in the problem. It’s a novel idea that I’ll certainly have to try out the next time something confuses me. Actually, I’m pretty confused by my toilet right now, but only because it has like a million little pieces in there that some idiot assembled with horribly unnecessary complexity.

Oh, and writing up that last little comment got me wondering they they had ever made an animated “Lorax” like I had seen with “The Butter Battle Book”. They did. Dr. Seuss is pretty much the best thing ever.

Google Books Settlement
You can read more about it elsewhere, and there is controversy about it, but this is the bare bones of what it would be nice to know about how Google Books will change due to their recent settlement. I’d say having access to millions of otherwise-unaccessible books free through the Caltech Library system, and for pay if I’m not at Caltech (or Caltech doesn’t buy in) is a pretty good deal. I’ve been meaning to read a million books, one of these days.

How To Survive Grad School

From the title, you might think this page is a bunch of funny jokes about graduate student life. Or you might thinks it’s a bunch of little packages of bullet-pointed wisdom. Actually, it’s just depressing. A grad student complains that grad school, and scientific culture in general, are nothing like what he/she imagined. But the sad part is that in the responses to the thread, the most optimistic advice anyone has is, “Yup. That’s the way it is. I guess you just have to try to deal as best you can.”

Why Your Ballot Isn’t Meaningless
Jordan Ellenburg on Slate

I voted for the first time in this election. I was 19 in 2004, and a sophomore in college. Because I’m a legal resident of Maryland, I couldn’t vote on Election Day, but I could certainly have obtained an absentee ballot with a minimal amount of effort.

I didn’t vote then, and I did this year. However, this was not because the mathematical sophistication I’ve gained in the last four years led me to re-assess the probability that my vote would count using a Bayesian analysis. Even with a one-in-a-million chance that your vote could decide the election, it’s not worth my time and effort to vote (i.e., if you take the time it took me to fill out the ballot and multiply by one million, you get my entire life span so far. And I would readily take my life so far over the chance to decide the next President between two major-party candidates.)

So my decision to vote had nothing to do with my estimation of whether or not it matters. Nor, I suspect, do most other voters’. So I disagree with Ellenburg’s thesis that it’s possible your individual ballot has more meaning than you think. However, I think the reasons people vote may vary widely.

One possible reason is explicit delusion: some people actually believe their vote makes a difference in terms of the outcome of the election. The other reasons to vote that come immediately to my mind are other, less direct forms of delusion, at least one of which I am guilty of.

Probably a common reason to vote is a sense of duty. People believe they are obligated to vote by society. I discussed this point before, and I think it’s insane. Voting is so meaningless that people’s obligation cannot possibly be to vote. If people have an obligation to the political system of their country, that obligation must be to a much more active participation than simply filling in some bubbles on an adult Scantron. (Dude, how did I never notice in high school that Scantron is a total Transformer name?) The same people who believe they have an obligation to vote frequently do not feel an obligation to educate themselves about the social, economic, and international issues that bear upon their vote. They do not feel an obligation to think rationally about their vote, to carefully contemplate and question their positions, and to attempt to recognize and grapple with their own prejudices. I would much rather have 25% of the populace vote with conviction backed upon rational thought and sincere concern for the well-being of themselves, their community, their nation, and the world, rather than 90% of the populace voting on what they read in People magazine.

Another possible delusion, and one that likely prompted my decision to vote, is a desire to avoid hypocrisy. How can I hold and argue opinions about political actions or social issues if I refuse even to make the the bare minimum effort to participate in the decision-making process, when that opportunity is offered? Forget the fact that, aside from school assignments, I have never written a letter to a politician, signed a petition, gone to a political rally, attended a town meeting, made a significant effort to express my opinions to fellow citizens, or in any way attempted to utilize one of the many avenues available for common citizens to participate in the political process. Not only do I remain largely ignorant of the proceedings of our government and of local and world politics. Not only do I eschew any personal sacrifice of even an afternoon’s worth of time or a few hours’ wages to help people whose political causes I believe in, I don’t even bother to take the most basic political action available to an American and cast a vote. The desire to avoid this hypocrisy is delusional because if casting a vote is worthless in terms of making a discernible impact on politics, then whether or not I voted should have no bearing on the probity of offering strongly-held opinions on politics.

I also believe many people vote due to a delusion that is essentially ineffable. Even if brushing your teeth were found to be completely useless in terms of oral hygiene, people would still do it, just because that’s what you do before bed (or whenver you happen to brush your teeth.) Similarly, I suspect that many people vote (and vote along party lines) simply because that’s what you do in election season. And they think about it no further.

Friday Sprog Blogging: Ghosts
Janet D. Stemwedel on Adventurers in Science and Ethics

I’ve been reading this stranger’s “sprog” conversations with her children for a couple of months now. I still don’t know what “sprog” means, but I think it has something do with with indoctrination into free-mindedness. The weekly column is hit and miss, but this one has a nice line or two.

Younger offspring: You don’t believe ghosts are real?

Dr. Free-Ride: I guess I just haven’t seen the evidence that would convince me.

Elder offspring: That creaking stair is pretty convincing.

Dr. Free-Ride: Look, at night, when we’re all in bed, our house creaks, but you don’t think it’s haunted, do you?

Younger offspring: No.

Elder offspring: Of course not! No one has died in it yet.

Providing Toilets for 39,000 Runners
John Branch for The New York Times

As soon as we can get the Times to run an article on nipple chafing we’ll really be on the way to getting the public to understand us runners.