Posts Tagged ‘book review’

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.”


The Crank Continuum

June 11, 2010

I’ve had one true crank on this blog. He jumped into the comments on this post with mathematical gibberish he claimed disproved relativity. Another time I saw a crank letter written to a researcher at JPL who worked on dark matter. This crank even provided a little mechanical apparatus intended to demonstrate the existence of dark matter. It consisted of a rubber or nylon sheet that was stretched over a wire frame, and then you were supposed to roll a marble around on it.

It’s kind of surprising that these cranks fit so well with the descriptions of many others in Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Half a century after Gardner wrote his books, cranks, and belief in what they have to say, hasn’t changed much.

I picked up this book after Douglas Hofstadter mentioned it in an article reprinted in Scientific American after Gardner’s recent death. It’s essentially descriptive, spending surprisingly (and refreshingly) little time refuting crank theories of physics and medicine, and instead mostly detailing them. Gardner does, of course, refute each crank theory, but his most important contribution is to collect enough of them that cranks begin to look similar. (You can read Gardner’s generalizations about cranks in the Hofstadter article, or in chapter 1 of the book.)

Another surprising fact was that cranks are not just weirdos shouting loudly on obscure corners of the internet (ahem). Many cranks were fairly normal, and even learned and respected people outside of their crankery. A surprising array of famous, respected people bought into and campaigned for crank theories. Upton Sinclair recurs throughout the book, advocating a number of useless medical and dietary systems. Some other delusional supporters or even creators of crank ideas include Aldous Huxley, Clifton Fadiman, Oliver Heaviside, Walt Whitman, Arthur Conan Doyle, William James, H. G. Wells, and Jesus (last one added by me; the others are from Gardner. However, many of Gardner’s cranks theories are motivated by proving or justifying religious claims).

It seems that as you cross over into the realm of crankery, you begin to believe your discovery has more and more power and wider and wider applicability. Medical cranks, for example, rarely believe they have a cure for cervical cancer. They think they have a cure for everything. Sometimes they even branch out and extend their theory of physiology to explain physics.

Crankery is dangerous, because in some ways it’s difficult for a layman to see the difference between crank science and real science. In crank science, the observations frequently go against the crank’s theory. The crank then comes up with excuses for why this is so (read Gardner’s chapter on Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine’s work on ESP for an especially clear example). But you can find scientists doing the same thing! A chemist’s reaction doesn’t come out right, so he assumes it was contaminated. A particle physicist doesn’t see the effect he was looking for, so he assumes it occurs at just slightly higher energy. How can we tell the difference between honest excuses – those that are truly identifying mistakes in the experimental conditions – and dishonest ones – those that are the result of a researcher who would find an excuse under any circumstances? In recent years I’ve heard from time to time about new attempts to publish scientists’ negative results and to make their complete lab processes and all data openly available. These are two efforts that should help distinguish them from cranks.

But another problem with the crank mindset is that there’s no sharp dividing line. Aside from science, I’ve read a bit about training distance runners, so I’ll use that here. One clear crank is Percy Cerutty, a coach who demanded his runners carry spears and “run like the primitive man”, advocated strange diets, and in general believed, as cranks do, that he had stumbled onto secrets that no one else knew. Eventually, his runners left him. A more marginal case is Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard is a coach who created a fairly rigid, systematized training system and then advocated it as being the best possible. His system was based on trial and error in his early days of coaching. He tried a few different things and then stuck with what seemed to work best. But he began to believe that all his advice was better, stronger, and more iron-clad than it was. He also began to think his general ideas applied not just to running, but to all athletic endeavors (specifically shot put, rugby, and rowing come to mind). He’s an in-between crank, because he did hold himself accountable to the results of his methods, and he did coach Olympic champions, but he also lost touch with reality (Lydiard still has a large following of distance runners today, many of whom would be incensed if they read this summary.)

Modern coaches, too, tend to believe in their methods beyond the level their results support, and babble on endlessly about aspects of human physiology that are not as well-understood as they indicate. But the point is that they do this to varying degrees, with coaches ranging widely from true cranks to rational, down-to-earth people with a healthy dose of skepticism towards even their own practices and a realistic viewpoint on the success and failure of their athletes.

I have frequently found myself buying into crank athletic ideas, believing, for example, that all my injuries are due exclusively to running on hard roads (as opposed to trails or grass), although I had no data to support the belief. After reading scores of books and hundreds of articles, I now believe mostly that I’m not very sure about anything regarding training distance runners.

Surely, there is a crank continuum in science as well. On the one hand, there is an ideal scientist who (perhaps) evaluates all new evidence they receive with a perfectly-rational Bayesian approach, drawing conclusions only to the extent warranted by the evidence (and their prior beliefs). But scientists, even good ones, don’t do all do that. Once in a while they begin to believe in their own theories even when the evidence starts to pile against them. The outcomes they want to see happen affect the results of their experiments, or they choose not to publish results they don’t like. Their error bars grow just large enough that the data is consistent.

Usually it’s not hard to tell a crank. Also, as Gardner points out in his book, just because there are some intermediate cases, doesn’t mean that most cases aren’t clear-cut. But I’m glad I read about what cranks do, how they justify their delusions, because I don’t have to look too long and hard to see hints of the same behavior in myself.