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


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!

11 Replies to “Q & A with Mike Brown, Pluto Killer, part 2”

  1. Hey, Dr. Brown, you’re sounding a bit ornery here. You must be getting grumpy from doing too many interviews!

    The comments about other scientists saying things they don’t believe do sound pretty harsh, but I remember last week’s space.com interview with Alan Stern and the very silly and misleading arguments he made on Pluto’s behalf, so I guess I understand what you’re talking about.

    But don’t complain too much. If the Pluto-huggers ever get their way you will suddenly have discovered more planets than anyone in history.

    And now I yield the floor to Laurel, who will no doubt have something lengthy to say…..

    1. Thanks for thinking of me! Hope you’ll buy my book when it comes out next year. The title is “The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto’s Story.”

  2. I very happy he is going to Australia to do work in the southern hemisphere. He’ll be welcomed in a nice friendly place, and will have good skies to do his searching.

    His of the cuff comment about find 6th magnitude objects is a little absurd? Dis he mean 16th magnitude? (I mean we already have several good southern hemisphere observers like Rob NcNaught here looking for near-Earth asteroids seeing well below 16th magnitude. They wouldn’t miss something if it were brighter than that! However, if you are looking for objects below 18th or 19th, Mike Brown might have a good chance of finding something interesting.

    Let’s hope his same enthusiasm comes with him, as I’m sure there are some young Aussies here looking for a new observational challenges and inspiration so such interesting work may continue for many years to come.

    Nancy: I enjoyed this second part more than the first. The Pluto debate is a little old hat IMO; and if you really are wanting to find someone to blame, I’d go for the IAU and their delegates first!!

  3. 6th magnitude KBOs? That has to be a typo. 16th magnitude is more like it. This is actually some of the most exciting news I have heard in quite some time. I had not put two and two together and never realized tht the southern sky had not been scanned for large KBOs in the same way as the north has, even though I was aware that they have elliptical orbits. Good luck to Professor Brown in that endeavor. I am sure his websites will be better secured and more closely monitored for scoop-able leaks this time.
    If you were to ask me if I had the opportunity to sneak a peek at what professor Brown might have found in the southern skies before anyone else knew, I doubt I would be able to resist the temptation. Trying to take credit for his discovery, of course, would be another matter enitrely. But this kind of mindset might help explain how Jose Luis Ortiz Moreno and his team were thinking back in 2005.

    There was a brief moment, after the discovery of Eris, when I felt a surge of grandiosity about our solar system having 10 planets. Such a nice round number! But then slowly over time the reality set in. The IAU decision at first had some shock value and forced me to rethink the whole concept of a planet. The more I looked at it, the more I realized they were right. But not totally right, (you can read my post on part 1 to see what I don’t like about the current definition of a dwarf planet, and why.) I agree with prof. Brown that the scientists who cling to the notion that Pluto is still a planet are mischievous little imps who should know better. They seems to relish in being at the center of attention when the media comes calling for someone to lead the battlecry of backlash driven by the the portion of the public that is against the IAU decision.

  4. Quote: “And it pains me to have scientists say things that I know they don’t actually think are true.”

    Whaaaaaaa? I thought scientists were ABOVE this sort of behavior…Now imagine what could happen if there were BILLIONS of grant dollars involved…say like for the AGW “cause”…..

    Pure innocence of “scientists”……

    Hubris more like it….

  5. Wow, this is an unusual set of varied comments. This time I’m being the nice guy!

    Tareece, I think he really means some scientists can be so passionate that they lead with their hearts instead of their heads. Passion is a very human trait, but it is far from being ‘scientific’ in its analysis — passion sometimes isn’t rational!

  6. So “passion” you suggest overrules facts, logic, and honor? What is the difference between your proposed passion (which I believe, along with Ego, are factors in the problem) and the proverbial kid who takes the ball home from the play yard because he hasn’t gotten his way?

    Where is the line drawn from an INDIVIDUAL’S ego and passionate belief versus the common good for humanity and the industry and crediblity of Science?

    If you suggest that someone is so passionate about a minor planet beyond the grasp of humanity (New Horizons is flying at 36,000 MPH and is only half way there after 5 yrs of flight), what are the implications of your “passion”-ate scientist cadre when the subject has a much more closer to home variable?
    Your reply to me was honorable and classy. I appreciate it as usually my AGW skepticism is greeted cooly to put it mildly

  7. @ tareence

    Yes, what you say is correct. When scientists act and follow the ridged discipline of science, they should not be engaging in frivolous or (That’s why they have committees!)
    The problem is that scientists are also human, and have all the same weaknesses and foibles.

    As for this article, Mike Brown’s motivations are also associated with his daughter Lilah. It is just like the story by Susannah Cahalan in the New York Post on 20th November. Here she says, summing it up nicely;

    After a heated debate, Pluto and its cousins became “dwarf planets,” and children who were taught the mnemonic “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles” would learn “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature.”

    She goes on to say;

    But what about his toddler daughter? What does she think about her father, the Pluto killer?
    “It seeped into her understanding that I killed Pluto, and she knows that killing is bad so I, clearly, did something bad. She is quite mad at me about it,” he said.
    But his daughter has a solution.
    “When you find a new planet,” his 3-year-old said. “You have to decide to name it Pluto, OK?”

    So how should her scientifically trained father supposed to react?

    I also like his honesty;

    “Killing Pluto meant sacrificing Eris,” he said. “So for me to support the new planet definition meant giving up being declared the Most Prolific Planet Discoverer Of All Time. Which would have been a nice badge to wear. Except that I would have always felt fraudulent, which is less good.”

    In the end, maybe Mike’s outburst you have objected too, is probably more out of frustration with the controversy than the science he’s investigating. After about four years of divisive questioning and debate, he’s probably sick to death of the story! (He is also likely saving face in front of his young daughter!)


  8. “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.”

    Wow, Mike Brown reaches a new low with this baseless ad hominem attack. Those of us, and there are many, and we are not all associated with the New Horizons mission, who view Pluto as a planet most certainly DO believe in what we are saying. We advocate a geophysical definition of planet, in which any object massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity that orbits a star is a planet. The idea is a definition based on what the object is, not where it is. Pluto is both a Kuiper Belt Object and a planet. Is Brown a mind reader now? What makes him think he knows what supporters of the geophysical planet definition believe? This is unbelievable arrogance. If anyone is misleading the public, it is Brown who falsely claims the debate over planet definition is over, when it is not. And it is hard to believe he is sick of the debate when he is making money off of the book and numerous talks he gives on the subject.

    There is a logical way to say our solar system does not have only eight planets. Simply, it is to note that there are not only two types of planets, terrestrials and jovians, but a third class, the dwarf planets. Dr. Alan Stern coined this term in 1991 to indicate objects large enough to be rounded by their own gravity but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. Our solar system, in the words of writer Alan Boyle, has four terrestrial planets, four gas giants, and more in the form of numerous dwarf planets.

    How does it make sense to put Earth and Jupiter in the same category? Earth has more in common with Pluto than with Jupiter. Jupiter has no solid surface, has its own “mini-solar system,” and is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. That makes it more like the Sun than like the Earth (except, of course, it doesn’t conduct hydrogen fusion). Earth and Pluto are both rocky, both have large moons formed via giant impact, and both have nitrogen atmospheres. How we classify objects is subjective; it is based on attributes WE pick and choose. Different astronomers will choose different attributes.

    Finally, we need to take Lilah out of this planet debate. If you write a book about astronomy, it should not take a detour into life as a husband and father. If I want to read about parenthood, I’ll go to that section of the library or bookstore to find a book. Putting in a notion of wanting to name a planet after one’s child is just using the child for shameless self-promotion. Brown might want to consider going into politics; it seems a lot more up his alley.

  9. Wow, instead of respecting fellow scientists like Dr. Alan Stern, Mr. Brown calls them liars. Seems like I recall Mr. Brown taking full credit for being the discoverer of Eris, which he first named after a cheesy teevy show and called a planet. Wikipedia says that Chad Trujillo and David L. Rabinowitz were co-discoverers of Eris, yet in every interview I have ever seen of Mike Brown, he never bothers to correct the record. David L. Rabinowitz, by the way, signed the petition Dr. Alan Stern presented the IAU protesting Pluto’s deplanetization, which was signed by a lot of fellow plantary scientists. (Dr. Stern’s recent space.com interview was very thoughtful, too, and is highly recommended and easily searchable.) So much for a united front from the discoverers of Eris. Another thing Mike Brown is being disingenuous about is his statement that Eris and Pluto are the same size. Pluto is larger that Eris. Bruno Sikardy of the Paris Observatory states in a recent article in “Sky and Telescope”: “Almost certainly Eris has a radius smaller than 1,170 km” — and that would make it ever-so-slightly smaller than Pluto, whose radius is thought to be 1,172 (±10) km. Don’t be surprised if the final value gets pushed another 50 or 60 km lower.”

    Sky and Telescope, “Eris Gets Dwarfed (Is Pluto Bigger?)”


    I look forward to the final Andean calculations. I hope when Eris loses another 100-120 km in diameter that the other Mike admits that Eris is a pipsqueak when compared to Pluto.

    Mike Wrathell, Esq. & Wikipedia-listed Artist
    Sterling Heights, Michigan, USA
    (aka Sowff)

  10. Laurel, Mike —
    What took you so long? Your google searches are clearly failing you here. The name Mike Brown was mentioned for an entire week before you could be bothered to attack!

    A few thoughts:
    Laurel, I find it odd that Stern complains about things clearing their orbit when he is the one who invented the term. Do you?

    Mike W, I find it odd that you make the same complaint here as you do elsewhere on the web, you yet never bother to read any of the many easily available things that Mike B actually writes in which EVERY SINGLE THING YOU SAY IS QUICKLY SHOWN TO BE UNTRUE, for example.

    Mike W & Laurel I recommend spending more time working on those thriving art and writing careers and less stalking Mike B. Maybe you’ll even get well enough known to acquire your own web stalkers some day.

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