Thursday, August 25, 2011

BOOKS: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

Two things about this post's book. First, Mike Brown is right with Neil DeGrasse Tyson for being able to explain science to a guy like me, somebody who likes science but who isn't interested in the minutiae. Secondly, how can you POSSIBLY NOT WANT to read a book called, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Great title. And as it turns out, great book.

Brown writes well, doing it in a very personal style. That's good because this is as much a biography as it is the story on Pluto's demise from planet to ... well I'm not sure. I think it's changed again, since the book was published. But I'm sure Brown's quest to find the tenth planet out beyond Pluto's orbit resulted in a reduction of planets in our system from nine to eight. Talk about reverse inflation!

Now, there are vocations that I don't get. We all joke about watching paint dry and the sheer boredom of assembly work. I don't want to fish in Arctic waters and I didn't have to watch any TV shows to tell me that. And being an assistant to a conservative politician or a Wall Street financial person seems like a negative when eventually seeing St. Peter's Gate. Some jobs are just meant to be boring, dangerous or just plain contributing to the delinquency of western civilization. Astronomy makes the list, not necessarily for being boring, but as for being so nit-picking, brain-numbing needed and mostly resulting in failure.

We DO need people willing to scan the skies for nasty bits of rock (asteroids of all sizes) and ice (comets) which might be headed our way. Not that we could do much about them right now. But someday we will. And hopefully, that someday is before the next big climate changer of a piece of debris heads our way. So, I'm not dissing Astronomy at all.

But like the weird sports of High Jump and Pole Vault, which both end in failure, Astronomy seems, right now, to be a whole lotta effort for a very rare occasional return. 'Cept if you're Mike Brown. He actually finds things. And it's not like he's looking for things in the near Earth orbit where garbage from previous attempts to escape Earth's gravity abounds. Nope, he takes the long view.

Using sophisticated software he and his teams have written over the years, Brown has found at least three objects that are big enough for names rather than ID numbers. And all three had shots, at one point or another, of giving our sun an even ten-spot of planets, or even 12 planets in all. But rules invalidating all three Big Objects Brown found were in constant formulation.

In each case, the planetoid failed at some level of conventional thinking to get that planet classification. And after Eris (aka Xena) failed, the reasons of failure also had to be applied to Pluto, which in the old days (last century) went occasionally from being ninth to being eighth by passing inside of the orbit of Neptune for a while. And when scientists applied that logic and created three rules for planet-classification, Brown had gone from planet finder to planet killer.

And it could have been worse. The new rules actually put Jupiter's status in jeopardy from a logic level, although nobody wanted to trifle with a seven-planet solar system. At least by definition. It was bad enough that Brown's daughter and a legion of other kids who had grown up in a nine-planet solar system were having to readjust their mnemonics to remember the planetary order.

There's even a caper in this book. Yep, some scientists from Spain, led by Jose Ortiz, got credit for an object Brown and his team had found months earlier. Brown bends over backward to not point the finger at Ortiz for scavenging data reference points Brown had accidentally let slip about a discovery code-named Santa. And while the overwhelming evidence is there to say nasty things about Ortiz et al, Brown tries very hard to take the high road. Me, as a reader who had grown fond of Brown, his family and his team, my reaction is decidedly Ortiz-negative. And I think the astronomy community as a whole shares my contempt for the Spaniards.

It's just more than a couple of hundred pages. Just enough science, all of it explained to me as a complete novice when it comes to this subject. Lots of humour, much of it self-effacing. A biography with a delightful man, an understanding wife and a kid we like a lot. A bit of mystery.

And a great title.

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