Thursday, February 3, 2011

HOW I KILLED PLUTO And Why It Had It Coming


And Why It Had It Coming

Mike Brown, 267 pages, Speigel & Grau, New York, 2010, $25

Reviewed by John Marchesella

God giveth and God taketh away. And Mike Brown took away our beloved Pluto as a planet, but he gave us this wonderful memoir of his time from 1999, when he had an un-scientific hunch that a tenth planet would be found beyond Pluto and he made an even more un-scientific bet on it with a colleague; to a bit passed the time when Pluto was lessened to dwarfed status, Ceres was promoted to dwarf planet, and his own discovery, Eris, was also recognized as a dwarf planet.

The author provides the inside story on the compelling news that we watched unfold in the New York Times a few years ago, when the International Astronomical Union was trying to decide on Pluto’s status according to the definition of the term, “planet,” or as Brown argues, the non-definition of “planet.” He speaks about his own inner process of giving up the glory of discovering the tenth planet, Eris, which had to go to dwarf if Pluto was going down too.

Even before his work on Eris, Brown gives the story of also discovering Quaoar and Sedna, as well as the frustrations and injustices of the politics of the solar system that IAU is.

If you are thinking this is little more than a science journal (as I did when I cracked the book open), then think again! Brown is an engaging, warm and well-humored writer with, not only an obvious passion for the skies, but also a passion for educating about the skies. He brings astronomy down to earth and shows us how the planets are all around us in our everyday lives if we just pay attention.

Most surprisingly, this turns out to be a love story. Thoroughly woven into the fabric of the astronomy is the very romantic story of meeting Diane, the woman who would become his wife, and the birth of their child, Lilah. These events in his life closely coincided with the discoveries of Sedna and Eris, respectively. In his very personal revelations of love and parenthood, Brown shows how the individual is a microcosm for the greater Universe. Here, and in his descriptions of how he chose the mythic names for his discoveries as well as for his daughter, we see that Brown is as much poet as he is scientist, and all human.

Astrologers will be glad to know, on occasion, he makes a brief mention of us in his book in no derogatory way! He speaks of our rapid use of newly discovered planetary bodies in our horoscopes, but more philosophically, he states early in his story about his love of the skies, “It’s impossible to know, but it’s always hard not to feel that in some way, for me at least, perhaps the early astrologers were right: Perhaps my fate actually was determined by the positions of the planets at the moment of my birth.”

Back in the day of his trials and tribulations with the IAU when Eris was still known as Xena, I had an e-mail exchange with Brown, regarding his birth data. With his permission, I used it in article about his chart. It is repeated here for your information: June 5, 1965, 2:35 P.M., Huntsville, AL.

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