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Interview: Mike Brown, Stories From the Pluto Killer

Reporter Steven Berkowitz recently talked with Mike Brown, the man who killed Pluto (the planet, not the dog). His new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, is about, well . . . it’s in the title. There’s also a lot of storytelling in the book, so Steven talked to him about the role of story in science and science writing. Listen to the interview above, and then read the excerpt from the book below.

Chapter One

What Is a Planet?

One December night in 1999, a friend and I were sitting on a mountaintop east of San Diego inside a thirteen-story-tall dome. Only a few lights illuminated the uncluttered floor of the cavernous interior, but above you could vaguely see the bottom half of the massive Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. The Hale Telescope was, for almost fifty years, the largest telescope in the world, but from where we sat, with the weak yellow incandescent lighting being swallowed in the darkness above, you would never have guessed where you were. You might have thought you were deep in the interior of a pristine Hoover Dam, with cables and wire and pipes for directing the flow of water around. You might have believed that the steel structures around you were part of the far underground support and control of a spotlessly clean century-old subway system. Only when the entire building gently rumbled and a tiny sliver of the starry sky appeared far over your head and the telescope began to move soundlessly and swiftly to point to some new distant object in the universe, only then would you be able to make out the shadowy outline of the truss all the way to the top of the dome and realize that you were but a dot at the base of a giant machine whose only purpose was to gather the light from a single spot beyond the sky and focus it to a tiny point just over your head.

Usually when I am working at the telescope I sit in the warm, well-lit control room, looking at computer screens showing instrument readouts, staring at digital pictures just pulled from the sky, and pondering meteorological readings and forecasts for southern California. Sometimes, though, I like to step out into the cold, dark dome and stand at the very base of the telescope and look up at the sky through the tiny open sliver high overhead and see—with my own eyes—exactly what the giant machine is looking at. This December night, however, as I was sitting with my friend inside the dark dome, there was no sky to see. The dome was fastened closed, and the telescope was idle because the entire mountain was covered in cold, dripping fog.

I tend to get quite glum on nights when I’m at a telescope with the dome closed and the precious night is slipping past. An astronomer gets to use one of these biggest telescopes only a handful of nights per year. If the night is cloudy or rainy or snowy, too bad. Your night on the telescope is simply lost, and you get to try again next year. It’s hard not to think about lost time and lost discoveries as the second hand very slowly crawls through the night and your dome stays closed. Sabine—my friend—tried to cheer me up by asking about life and work, but it didn’t help. I instead told her about how my father had died that spring, and how I felt unable to really focus on my work. She finally asked me if there was anything that I was excited about these days. I paused for a few minutes. I momentarily forgot about the freezing fog and the closed dome and the ticking clock. “I think there’s another planet past Pluto,” I told her.

Another planet? Such a suggestion would have generally been scoffed at by most astronomers in the last days of the twentieth century. While it is true that for much of the last century astronomers had diligently searched for a mythical “Planet X” beyond Pluto, by about 1990 they had more or less convinced themselves that all that searching in the past had been in vain; Planet X simply did not exist. Astronomers were certain that they had a pretty good inventory of what the solar system contained, of all of the planets and their moons, and of most of the comets and asteroids that circled the sun. There were certainly small asteroids still to be discovered, and occasionally a bright comet that had never been seen before would come screaming in from the far depths of space, but certainly nothing major was left out there to find. Serious discussions by serious astronomers of another planet beyond Pluto were as likely as serious discussions by serious geologists on the location of the lost continent of Atlantis. What kind of an astronomer would sit underneath one of the biggest telescopes in the world and declare, “I think there’s another planet past Pluto”?

Excerpted from How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown. Copyright © 2012 by Mike Brown. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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