Q & A with Mike Brown, Pluto Killer, part 2

by Nancy Atkinson on December 3, 2010

Artist illustration of Eris. Image credit: NASA

Here’s part 2 of our conversation with astronomer Mike Brown. Yesterday, he talked about the latest findings on Eris, the Haumea controversy and more; today he talks about being known as the “killer” of Pluto, his reflections on Brian Marsden and his hopes for the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Universe Today: You seem to actually relish the role of Pluto Killer…

Mike Brown: You know, I didn’t initially. I really wanted to be the thoughtful person who explained to people what was going on and I tried very hard. And the reason I have become a sort of more militantly Pluto-killer-ish over the past couple of years is because — against what I think is reason — there are other astronomers who have been militantly pro-Pluto and saying things that are generally misleading in public. And it pains me to have scientists say things that I know they don’t actually think are true.

To hear an astronomer say that there is no logical reason why you would come up with eight planets, it makes no scientific sense. No one can say that and actually believe it. There are good arguments for one side or the other and I would enjoy it more if they would make the arguments instead of just trying to sort of manipulate public opinion, but I don’t think they do. Mostly the small number of the pro-Pluto crowd tends to be more manipulative. I thought somebody needs to defend the very reasonable idea of eight planets, so I have taken on that role.

UT: The Pluto-is-a-planet people are definitely vociferous.

Mike Brown: And honestly, I think manipulative is the word. They don’t believe what they say, they know what they say is not true and they say it in ways that are deceitful. That is maybe a strong statement to make, but they know what they are saying is not true. That bothers me. You shouldn’t say things that you know is not true just to make a point.

UT: Could you talk a little about Brian Marsden? He played a rather big role in the book, and in how things turned out with your discoveries – and the planet debate. He’ll obviously be missed.

Mike Brown: I have a book sitting at home that I had actually signed that I was going to send to him, and I didn’t get a chance to do it. I’m really sad that he didn’t get to see it. Everybody has their ‘Brian Marsden story’, and some are versions of the same story where he was incredibly supportive of interesting things in the solar system. When we started finding these large objects, there were a lot of people who were less supportive and not really happy about the discoveries. Brian was just happy about everything – if you were discovering new objects or comets, or different observations of asteroids – he just loved it all and he was always the first, you could just hear it in his voice when you talked to him, he was just genuinely excited about these new things that were being discovered.

He can’t be replaced. I like the people at the minor planet center and I like what they are doing, but he was unique. We won’t ever replace that energy and enthusiasm and the absolute love of the solar system that he had.

UT: How much are you looking forward to the New Horizons mission flyby of Pluto – and do you have any inklings of what it might come across in the Kuiper Belt?

Mike Brown. Credit: CalTech

Mike Brown: It going to be really interesting. The funny thing is, the answer to that question three weeks ago was “I can’t wait because all of these objects are sort of the same out there in the Kuiper Belt, and going to the closest one, even if it is not the biggest one will really teach you about everything that is out there.” That statement is no longer true. With Eris and Pluto being so different, we won’t learn as much about Eris as I had initially hoped, but like everyone else, I’ll be waiting anxiously for those first pictures to come back. I can’t wait to see them. Every time we go somewhere we’ve never gone before we learn things – the things we learn are never the things you think you are going to learn. I’m prepared to be astounded.

I am looking forward to, as much if not more perhaps, the later flyby of New Horizons of a small KBO. I think that scientifically understanding the smaller more typical objects is perhaps even more important than understanding the rare, big crazy objects.

Artist concept of the New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Artist concept of the New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA

UT: And are you still actively looking for objects out there?

Brown: Yes, we are looking very hard in the southern hemisphere now. We’ve finished the northern hemisphere, at least the bright objects, so I don’t think there will be too many more big ones discovered.
For the northern hemisphere, we knew that — at least — Clyde Tombaugh had been there first. We weren’t going to find something as bright as Pluto in the northern hemisphere because Clyde would have found it. In the southern hemisphere, it is basically wide open, because there was no Clyde Tombaugh, and we’re not even quite sure what the limit is. There’s not something 6th magnitude out there because someone would have seen it, but I don’t know how bright the brightest thing could be – that doesn’t mean that there’s something that bright there, but every day when we’re looking the possibilities are exciting.

UT: What telescopes are you using?

Brown: We have two that are working right now. One is actually an old data set from a near Earth asteroid survey and we are reprocessing the data in a way to make is sensitive to the types of objects we are looking for. This is the Uppsala ½ meter telescope at Siding Spring in Australia. It is the same telescope and the same data that the Catalina Sky Survey uses for the southern hemisphere.
And then as soon as telescope is finally online, we’ll use the Australian National University Skymapper telescope, which is kind of a Pan-STARRS south type of telescope that can do big surveys of the southern skies for many different purposes, including finding large Kuiper Belt objects.

It is fun to know again that some morning we might wake up and find something big and cool. That is always a fun way to go through life.

Read part 1 of this interview, and also see our review of Brown’s new book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming” and find out how you could win a copy!


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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