He’s not ‘Brown from the Sun,’ but he killed Pluto
Mike Brown

From time to time I get reminded just how common my name is. I mean, come on, “Mike Brown.” Yeesh. Why couldn’t they at least have called me “Vladimir” or “Boilerplate” or something?

Publisher Emeritus Bill Cooke has always believed I should have worked for the Williamson County Sun.

That way I would have been “Brown from the Sun,” a phrase he has called me for the past four decades.

Usually I think about this kind of thing when I see one of the other hundreds of Mike Browns with whom I share this two-syllable, nine letter moniker.

Just this week I received an e-mail from the esteemed Willis Webb—retired publisher and patron saint of Texas community journalism—whose columns also occupy this page. (And don’t you think that’s not pressure, being on the same page as Willis. “Hello, Mr. Noah, what do you think of this little canoe I built?”)

Art by Marco Hernandez, a 2012-13 junior at Rockdale High School. Art by Marco Hernandez, a 2012-13 junior at Rockdale High School. Where was I? Oh yes, Willis had encountered an astronomer named Mike Brown, who teaches at Cal Tech. They don’t have a football team so you haven’t heard of that university.

Willis recalled, correctly, that I was interested in astronomy. Or maybe just thinking about me brought the term “spaced out” to mind.

That’s true. I’ve still got four telescopes moldering away somewhere in the garage and I recall using them back in the pre-kid days when the days, and nights, seemed to have more time in them, for some reason.

But I have tried to keep up with things celestial and I do know a lot about Dr. Michael Brown of Cal Tech.

Who, by the way, is a Michael E. Brown, same as me.

Dr. Michael E. Brown ‘killed’ Pluto. Not the cartoon dog, the planet. Dr. Michael E. Brown ‘killed’ Pluto. Not the cartoon dog, the planet. I’ve even corresponded briefly with him and he seems like a very nice guy. Of course with that name he would have to be.

Dr. Brown is even famous in the scientific community, and he should be. Why? The title of one of his books should give you a clue.

It’s called “Why I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming.”

It probably hasn’t permeated down into the national consciousness just yet, what with the Kardashians and Facebook taking up so much of our time, but there aren’t nine planets any more. There are eight.

No kidding. Remember Pluto, the way- out ninth planet that gave its name to the Disney character? It’s been demoted.

Due to Dr. Brown’s research, the International Astronomical Union in 2006 had to come up with a technical definition of the word “planet” and Pluto failed to make the grade.

Here’s what happened, in a simplified (hopefully) version.

Dr. Brown special izes in Trans-Neptunian Objects. That would be stuff flying around out there past the orbit of Neptune, which is still a planet, by the way. He found one.

He initially named it “Xena.” Yes, after the television show. But he backed off. This was his logic. “When my daughter grew up and got to be about 20, I could see her finding out I’d named it that, and why, and never talking to me again.”

So it was renamed Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and strife. Pronounced like the British would call the county that con- tains Houston. Wow. The number of planets increases from 9 to 10. Followed by “oops, its orbit really doesn’t behave like a planet.”

Followed by “major uh-oh, it’s as big as Pluto.” And it turns out Eris wasn’t the only one of these objects whirling around out there.

When the count got to five, the astronomical community realized it had some major decisions to make. Either the number of planets was going to get much bigger or one that had been classified as a planet for more than 80 years really wasn’t.

And the latter choice is what the IAU picked. Eris and the other newcomers were classified as “dwarf planets” and Pluto was reassigned to that category.

All the dwarf planets were then renamed...Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Grumpy....

Oh wait. I made that up.

Something I didn’t make up is that one of the criteria for actually being classified as a planet is that the object has to be big enough to have become rounder by virtue of its own gravity and rotation.

Using that definition, I think I’m personally acquainted with several planets.

Dr. Brown is sort of kidding and not kidding with that book title. He actually got hate mail from kids about “killing” Pluto.

(So do I but it comes from my own family.)

Maybe they think he killed Mickey Mouse’s dog.

I have an idea on how to tell Dr. Brown from me. He could be introduced as “Brown from far away from the sun.”

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