VSC Logo
Page Header

About Us

jzermeno

Mike Brown, Destroyer of Planets

Caltech Professor of Astronomy, Mike Brown knows how to get people’s attention. Traditionally, science lectures are not regarded as being the most exciting way to spend an evening out. Perhaps that’s why Dr. Brown decided to title his lecture at Rice University in Houston, TX this past March “How I killed Pluto and why it had it coming”. I was not present at the actual lecture but thanks to Rice University’s Astronomy Department and their “Public Connection” project I was able to view it online after the fact.

You may not recognize the name off-hand, even though he was one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2006 and has an asteroid named after him, but I guarantee you are at least casually familiar with some of his work. Yes, that’s right; he is the man who stripped Pluto of its planetary status.

The lecture was one of the best I’ve seen. Dr. Brown has great comedic timing in addition to having a great story to tell. The result is a lecture that you can sit through and wish there was more time to talk when it is over.

He touched on some Pluto history, explaining how Clyde Tombaugh was in fact searching for the predicted position of the infamous “Planet X” when he discovered Pluto in 1930. The calculated shape of Neptune’s orbit seemed to suggest that something else’s gravity was tugging on it from the further reaches of the solar system; something large. While he didn’t find anything at the point in space that was supposed to be inhabited by the theoretical Planet X, Tombaugh did happen to spot the, well, the “spot” on his photographic plates that turned out to be Pluto. By the way, for those of you who, like me, still have to deal with the topic of Planet X from time to time, the Neptune tug that prompted the search never really existed. It turned out to be bad data.

Flash forward 76 years and 90 miles south of Mount Wilson, and we find Mike Brown’s team at the Palomar Observatory working hard to confirm that a moving dot on their data images was in fact the object now known as Eris, the largest of the dwarf planets, or according to Professor Brown, “the slightly pudgier twin of Pluto”. Actually, according to Mike Brown you would have been extremely lucky to find him physically present at the observatory. He visited the telescope twice during the seven year project, almost all of the work being done remotely.

The discovery of Eris in January of 2005 and subsequent discoveries by Brown et al. have revealed to us a larger solar system encompassing more objects, and more kinds of objects, than the one many of us grew up with. One of the main messages drawn from the lecture is that anyone observing the solar system as a whole today would see 4 kinds of significantly large objects orbiting around the Sun: small rocky planets, plenty of tiny asteroids, giant gas planets and now the relatively very small rocky bodies that we call the dwarf planets; and that’s okay, because it makes good sense!

So when people complain about Pluto being “downgraded”, I tell them to look at it this way: Pluto was not demoted, rather, it was made king of its own domain, the First of the Dwarf Planets!

Other interesting tidbits about the project:

  • The team had to build their own CCD camera to suit the needs of the work, resulting in the largest CCD of its time “pieced together with tape and bailing wire”.
  • This was the first time since 1930 that anyone had covered so much sky in a telescopic survey.
  • After confirming the existence of Eris, Brown’s team painstakingly searched through pictures of the same part of the sky taken by other researchers in the past. They discovered that the first images of the object to become known as Eris were actually taken in a series of prints from 1950 that were part of a sky survey done at the Palomar Observatory, using the very same telescope that Brown’s team used to find it in 2005.
  • For a while after its discovery, Eris was informally named Xena after the TV show character. Later, when Eris was discovered to have a moon it was named Dysnomia, the name of the daughter of the Greek goddess, Eris. Dysnomia means “Lawlessness” and, as everyone knows, the actress that played Xena is named Lucy Lawless. For more naming fun, you should see the lecture.

You can watch the lecture online at the below link:

http://earth.rice.edu/marlar/Marlar2010/index.html

Trust me it is worth your time!

 

Here is Mike Brown’s blog page for first-hand Kuiper Belt, Trans-Neptunian, Dwarf Planet information & more:

http://www.mikebrownsplanets.com/

 

Also, I’d like to announce that Dr. Mike Brown will be a keynote speaker at Space Center Houston’s Annual Space Exploration Educator’s Conference next year (SEEC 2011). For more info on SEEC 2011 check out this link:

http://www.spacecenter.org/teachersSEEC.html

0 Comments
Doreen

The Discovery Center of Idaho

Our Mission

Inspire lifelong interest and learning in science, technology, engineering and math.

Vision Statement

  • DCI is an interactive science center providing exhibits and educational programs that offer authentic, sensory experiences making the sciences, technology, engineering and math tangible.
  • DCI fosters lifelong learning and enhances scientific literacy in a collaborative environment for people of all ages and from all walks of life.
  • DCI celebrates the pure joy of learning and helps to develop an educated workforce and an informed electorate in stewardship of our planet.
  • DCI is built on cooperative partnerships with education, industry and research organizations, public and private.
  • DCI will showcase its philosophy and objectives and reflect the region’s resources through its programs, exhibits and architecture.

History

The Discovery Center of Idaho opened to the public on January 15, 1989. It began with an idea conceived by the Junior League of Boise and the next six years were spent bringing this idea to life. Through countless hours of volunteer effort, the current location was selected through the generosity of the City of Boise, and has proven to be a great location and an even greater affiliation with the other public institutions in and around Julia Davis Park. Today, the Discovery Center welcomes over 100,000 people annually and has over 160 hands-on exhibits, and has seen well over 1,000,000 visitors since 1989.

0 Comments