We all grew up learning, in school, that there were nine planets in the solar system. We never thought much about it: That's just the way it was. But in 2005, Mike Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, discovered a tenth. As he explains in his new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming, out today by Spiegel & Grau, this is something he had been working toward his whole life. That day of discovery was one of the best days of his life, second only, perhaps, to the day his daughter, Lilah, was born.
But the excitement only lasted so long. Brown's discovery ignited a year-long debate over how, exactly, to define a planet. And when things got out of control, when too many bodies were being upgraded to planetary status, it was Brown who had to step in and demote his own discovery, the largest object found in the solar system in 150 years, and, along with it, beloved Pluto.
Read more Atlantic Technology Channel Book Excerpts.
I couldn't accept it.
The solar system does not consist of twelve planets and then everything else. That is simply a fundamentally incorrect description of it. And the next day in Prague, astronomers were going to stand up and encourage the world to think of the solar system incorrectly. As someone who spends much of my life trying to be not just a scientist but an educator, trying to explain the universe and show the excitement without resorting to science fiction or trivial simplification, the idea that astronomers would actively encourage people to have the wrong view of the solar system seemed almost criminal. The idea that I was going to, overnight, become one of the most famous astronomers in the world on account of this criminal activity made me a passive accomplice. I had to do something to stop it.
I hobbled back from the rocky beach up to the house. I woke Diane and told her that when the press called tomorrow I was going to have to tell them why the new proposed definition of planet was no good and why, in the end, it made sense all along for there to be just eight planets. I told her that I was going to have to kill Pluto and that Xena would go down as necessary and important collateral damage.
All along, Diane had been more practical than I was. "Just let it be a planet," she would say. "Try not to worry about it so much," she had told me all year. "Relax" was her usual advice.
But this time, when I told her that I couldn't support Xena's becoming a planet, Diane simply said, "Of course not, sweetie. You always needed to do what's right." And then she gave me her usual advice: "Relax."
I did not sleep well that night.
The next morning, I went to the village of Eastsound, where I knew I could get freshly brewed coffee and a freshly flown-in newspaper. On the front page, a headline screamed, "Three New Planets Added to Solar System." A beautifully prepared graphic -- courtesy of the IAU -- showed the new solar system with the twelve planets all in place. The article prominently featured quotes of mine from previous interviews about the new planet Xena.
I felt sick to my stomach.
This was it. Astronomers had taken a beautiful and subtle solar system and turned it into a cartoon. And the cartoon was wrong.
I went back to the house and called the people at media relations at Caltech and told them where to find me. I hung up the phone and waited for two minutes before it rang.