The Death of Pluto

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be sent a review copy of "How I Killed Pluto... and Why It Had It Coming" by Prof Mike Brown. The book is a great story of scientific discovery in our own astronomical backyard - the Solar System.

Over the past few weeks I've been forced to dump my normal bike ride to work and take the much slower bus. Mike's book has proved the perfect way to look forward to the journey. In fact there have been a few times when I was almost in danger of missing my stop. Now, having just finished the book whilst being chased across our own planet by sunset, I thought it would be a perfect time to write a review (I was at 11,573 m altitude and 3169 km from LAX when I wrote this).

I think I first heard about the discovery of the new objects on an episode of Slacker Astronomy (the audio is missing). I seem to remember that the episode had been quickly recorded and released in the aftermath of a sudden press conference held one Friday afternoon (California time) in late July 2005. The press conference announced the discovery of three large solar system objects orbiting the Sun out beyond the orbit of Pluto. It followed hotly on the heels of an announcment earlier that week of the discovery of an object possibly twice the size of Pluto (a mistaken estimate it turned out) by a group in Spain. To discover one large solar system object is big news but to have three announced in the same week was unheard of.

The object announced by the Spanish group had also been observed by the second group from California. The Californian team had managed to get a much better estimate for the size of the object and it was smaller than Pluto, but, perhaps one of the other two discoveries was not.

The second press conference was hosted by Mike Brown. He and his team had been studiously collecting data so that they could know something about the objects (size, mass and things like that) before making them public. Their hand had been forced by the first announcement. As the days went on however, the story took a dramatic twist as it turned out the first group may have spied on Mike's observations. International espionage is not expected amongst scientists so it got people talking.

The book takes us back to the beginning of Mike's career as he decided to look for planets. Nobody had discovered one since Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto in the early 20th century but technology had moved on. Mike describes his searches, his time using telescopes and his conviction that there must be something bigger than Pluto out there. We get to follow the ups and downs of research, the repeated failures and then the excitement as one, then two, then three objects pop out from the hunt.

Mike doesn't shy away from putting the discoveries in the context of his life; how he first met his wife in a telescope dome and how the birth of their daughter affected events. In fact, I remember their newly born daughter - Lilah - cheekily turning up in the address of Mike's webpages when he first announced the discovery. Although it could be tiring to hear a parent talk about their new child, here it felt right. The process of discovery, despite our attempts to be objective, is not devoid of humanity. Lilah is tied up in the events around the discovery and I'm glad Mike didn't leave her out.

I was already familiar with some of the recent history, having followed Mike's webpages and blog, but this book filled in the back story and the events as seen from within. I found it thoroughly enjoyable to read. Whilst only part way through I had started to compare it to Jocelyn Bell's great story of the discovery of pulsars. Jocelyn makes her story feel real and not just a part of a history text book. Mike manages the same and it somehow seems fitting that Jocelyn even gets a little role in this story.

Although astronomers will enjoy this book (particularly those early on in their careers), I think non-astronomers will enjoy it too.

The book - How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming - is written by Prof Mike Brown and was released on 7th December . You should find it in all good book shops. I recommend it.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 09th Dec 2010 (04:04 PST) | Permalink
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]