Archive for September 4th, 2011

September 4, 2011

Mike Brown, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Here is last week’s Left of Cool piece. I was either very clever or very tedious and titled the version in the paper “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nomenclature”. The original version is below.

 

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When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet, a number of people were understandably very upset. They’d grown up with the information that there were nine planets in the solar system and these were their names: the addition of a tenth planet might have felt like an exciting new adventure, but to have their number reduced seemed a genuine loss.

Strangely enough, it is because a tenth “planet” had been discovered that Pluto was thus demoted. Mike Brown, the discoverer of this new celestial body, therefore became indirectly the architect of Pluto’s downfall. The question of whether or not “Xena” (now known as “Eris”) was a planet meant that the International Astronomical Union had to arrive at a single definition of what a planet was. The definition, when it was made, excluded both Eris and Pluto, and people scrambled to find new mnemonics to remember the names of the planets; one suggested mnemonic being “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature”.

In How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, Brown describes the events leading up to this momentous decision. Interspersed with the story of the various things Brown and his team discovered are sections about his personal life; his relationship with his wife Diane, and the birth of their daughter Lilah. Brown is funny and moving about his family and his personal foibles and these sections of the book are excellent. A scene in which Brown and Diane sit around calmly waiting for her contractions to become sufficiently frequent is particularly memorable.

Brown has the tendency (though presumably with the noble goal of being accessible) to address himself to readers who are expected to know almost nothing about the universe. We can’t all be astronomers, or even scientists, but if you were the sort of child who thought space was amazing, it’s a bit jarring to have someone kindly explain to you things you knew in primary school, such as the existence of the Kuiper belt. Luckily he is an engaging enough narrator that the painstaking explanations of everything are not as annoying as they might have been. Most of the time it’s easy to be swept away by the enthusiasm that permeates the book.

This is unfortunately not the case in the chapters where he discusses a couple of controversial moments in his career. These are the naming of “Sedna” and the discovery of “Haumea”, both dwarf planets. Brown certainly makes a strong case for his own righteousness, but in doing so he also somehow makes himself less sympathetic. To leave out any discussion of these issues would have looked suspicious or weak, but it’s a pity that they should have had to sour the book in this fashion.

It is on the issue of language that I find myself least in sympathy with Brown. The question of the status of Pluto is as much one of naming as it is one of science; to what extent must words have fixed, single definitions? How far are we comfortable with instability of meaning, and is it even possible to force a sudden change in the way a word is popularly used? In one section the author bemoans the varied and unscientific ways in which the word “continent” is used- his bewildered indignation is funny, yet as a literature student I found myself wanting to shout “that’s not how language works!” Brown does come around a little and pays lip-service to the idea that how a word is used might matter a little. Yet he when he refers to this as “emotional” or “sentimental” it seems unlikely that he really gets it.

I have in the past been indifferent to Pluto’s status. Yet framed by an argument about language and the naming of things, suddenly it seems like campaigning for its reinstatement might be a good idea. I’m quite sure this is not the reaction the author intended, yet How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is still an enormously entertaining book.

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