Mike Brown, Astronomer in conversation with Revati Laul at THiNK 2011
IN 2003 I discovered Eris, the largest object found in the solar system in 150 years, and that led to the eventual demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a dwarf planet. WhenPluto was killed, in America, I was accused of robbing people of their childhood. Some of the hate mail I got had obscenities I had to ask my students at Caltech to decode. To many, what I do — complex calculus and studying maps in the sky for years on end — may seem like a complete waste of time. Why does the demotion of Pluto matter?
Names do matter. The first thing a scientist does when examining new objects, animals, behaviours or phenomena is classification. Classification sits at the root of any scientific tree. Without classification, everything is an individual with individual explanations and theories. Classification allows us to start to make sense of the universe around us.
The story of Pluto goes back to the 1930s, when scientists felt there was something pulling at the edge of Neptune’s orbit. They were looking so hard for a ninth planet that even though Pluto was much smaller than all the others and didn’t quite have the same kind of orbit, they decided it was the ninth planet. It was around 2000 that scientists began to question whether Pluto was, in fact, a planet. My discovery only made the case for killing Pluto stronger.
For me, sitting in my office at Caltech and studying the universe every day is fascinating. Are there other forms of life out there? Sure. I think it would be difficult to imagine that of all the solar systems out there, we are the only ones with life on it. But equally, it seems impossible that we would be able to reach out to or interact with species from another solar system. How would we communicate? We barely communicate properly with each other and with species on our own planet. For me, knowing there is so much out there to look at and discover, is essential to mankind. And when you know there’s all of this stuff out there, how can you not want to know what it is?