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
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.”