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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Eccentric orbits

Too bad Alec Wilkinson's article about distant planets isn't available in the online edition of the New Yorker (July 24 print edition--and yes, it comes from the department of "our far-flung correspondents"). It's a really great profile of Mike Brown, a Caltech professor of astronomy who's found minor planets and a possible tenth planet. Here's another article about Brown's work from Discover.

Since my elementary school report on Pluto, I've been following its fortunes with an eccentric attachment. You think that's a joke, an obvious ploy to get "eccentric" in there, but I've even written short fiction about the tiny planet and its moon, which were discovered in part in New Mexico by Clyde Tombaugh. Somewhere, I have a short story about the ghost of Tombaugh intervening in the Pluto Crisis of '99, when astronomers were considering demoting Pluto to the status of Minor Planet since Pluto has more in common with Kuiper Belt objects than it does with other planets. Wilkinson introduces Brian Marsden, the director of the Minor Planet Center and so-called "emperor of the solar system," who handled complaints from my fellow Pluto-philes:
In 1999, the Minor Planet Center suggested removing Pluto from the list of planets. Marsden got a lot of mail from people who told him that Pluto was their favorite planet. He tended to write back saying that his favorite planet was Earth.

Wilkinson quotes Brown's thoughts on the eight/ nine/ ten/ twenty-three planets debate (here's more from his web site):
"Ten requires the subtlest argument. You add Xena, but why would you, if you have any credibility? Some people think I might like to force the issue, to be known as the guy who found it, but I don't feel that way. When I used to argue for eight, I felt as if there was a public sentiment that you couldn't get rid of Pluto. If you did, you were a mean person, is what it felt like. I wondered why there appeared to be an emotional attachment to an inanimate object that most people who are arguing about had never seen. The epiphany was understanding that people love planets the way they love dinosaurs. Planets are like continents. 'Continent' is a good geological word, but like 'planet,' it has no scientific meaning whatsoever. There is no scientific reason why Asia is a continent and Europe is a continent, and India is not. If you said you were going to take away Australia as a continent, people would not like it."

Since I'm attached to Pluto for sentimental rather than scientific reasons, I'll note that my favorite part of the article was about how astronomers come up with the names for these objects:
In parts of the sky, specific rules pertain. Asteroids near Jupiter called Trojan asteroids must be named for heroes of the Trojan War. Minor planets with orbits between Jupiter and Neptune but not directly engaged with them--not moons, that is--are called centaurs and are named after them. Objects whose orbits approach Neptune's, or cross it, but are not satellites are named for mythological figures associated with the underworld. Brown's object fell into the category including objects sufficiently distant from Neptune that they are not substantially affected by it--the technical word is "perturbed." Such objects are named for figures from mythology that have to do with creation.

Brown and his group thought that it would be nice to have a name from a mythology close to California. They typed into Google "creation god, los angeles, indian," and were referred to a site that discussed the creation myths of a tribe called the Tongva, who lived in the Los Angeles Basin and were also known as the Gabrielino Indians. Brown liked the name Kwawar, which was one of the Tongva's creation gods. Since the Tongva still existed, Brown and Trujillo thought that they should ask the tribe's permission. ... The chief referred Trujillo to the tribe's historian. The historian was delighted, but said that the tribe preferred the spelling Quaoar. The historian was also the tribe's chief dancer, and he choreographed a dance in honor of Quaoar, although Brown has yet to see it.

Brown picked the name Sedna, an Inuit goddess of seas, for a planet so far away it's not even part of the Kuiper Belt.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Jul 23, 06:21:00 PM:
Alice, Sufjan Stevens has a song called "For Clyde Tombaugh" on his newly released "The Avalanche," the record of outtakes and B-sides from his "Illinois" album from last year. I wonder what's the connection? It doesn't have any words, but it does sound like a soundtrack for someone lost in space.
Blogger Ben on Wed Aug 09, 06:09:00 PM:
My stepbrother Jon took a course with Mike Brown three years or so ago, and when Brown declared his hunch that a tenth planet would be inducted into the Solar System within the next five or ten years, Jon placed a bet with him that it wouldn't. Now Jon owes Mike Brown a case of beer.