Sunday 18 January 2015


You know you shouldn't pick at scabs but it's very difficult to refrain.  It's even poorer form to pick at somebody else's scabs, but sometimes you just can't stop yourself bringing up an issue which others would rather keep buried.  I'm here (or rather there - waaaay out beyond the orbit of Neptune) because of the Galileo/Marius priority spat 400 years ago.  You'd think we'd left all that ego and aggro behind in modern civilised gentlemanly science, but we haven't. Science is about discovering something about the Universe . . . which nobody knew before.  We could, with advantage, spend much more time verifying or replicating or contradicting other people's work but it's much more exciting to find the next new thing. And there's no money to be had for tidying up what we all already know.  This is part of the reason whyIt ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” can remain in textbooks for so long.

Mike Brown is an astronomer from Alabama who is currently on the faculty at CalTech.  His career choice may have been tilted by attending the  Virgil I. Grissom High School which was named after one of the more colorful astronauts on NASA's Gemini program. In the early part of this century, Brown was concentrating on locating objects at the edge of the Solar System beyond the orbit of Neptune aka  trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) or Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).  Knowing that scientific credibility depends on having a three-letter acronym (TLA), Brown and his colleagues David Rabinowitz and Chad Trujillo called themselves “Three Guys at a Telescope (TGT)”.  Their business plan was to program the Mount Palomar telescope to take three consecutive photographs of the same patch of sky and see if anything had shifted in their three-frame movie.  Computers had cranked up the throughput, but it was the same fundamental technique that Clyde Tombaugh had used to discover Pluto in 1930. It took 2 generations before David Jewitt and Jane Luu (who won the Annie Jump Cannon award in 1991) from Hawaii discovered a second TNO called "(15760) 1992 QB1". The boys from CalTech had been massively successful, finding at least 11 TNOs between Christmas 2001 and Christmas 2004. On 28 December 2004, TGT found another object which they nicknamed Santa and decided to work on establishing its credentials (mass, diameter, orbit, atmosphere etc.) with a view to publishing at a major conference in September 2005.  In order to register for the meeting they submitted an abstract to the conference organisers in July. They were gutted to find that they had been scooped when a week later Pablo Santos-Sanz and Jose-Luis Ortiz of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Granada, Spain announced on 27 July 2005 that they had located the same object on some old pictures.  Brown bowed to this gracefully and conceded defeat on Santa "(136108) 2003 EL61", not least because he had discovered two other TNOs within a few weeks which they had designated Xena (the Warrior Princess) and Easterbunny (because it was found just after Easter). Clearly they were dredging the depths of American culture for name ideas.

But a series of unfortunate events revealed that the traces of CalTech's primary data for the discovery were in the public domain on the interweb and access_log records showed that someone from Granada had downloaded the numbers between the publication of the CalTech abstract and the announcement of discovery and establishment of priority by Ortiz.  The event-train was precipitated by Brown googling (as you do) "K40506A" - their official code for Santa. Caltech called foul, Granada said they had merely been verifying their discovery to make sure it was correct.  At The Institute, we are very strict on acknowledging sources and it looks like the Spaniards were a little slacker about this than we'd like to find among our students.  But then again, if I could read Spanish better, I'm sure I could find evidence that it was another example of Yankee-dog cultural imperialism. But if Ortiz is claiming by precovery, he needs to cede priority to people who took photos of Santa/Haumea from Palomar Observatory all the way back to 1955! Since Ptolemy and Eratosthenes everyone with two good eyes could see Uranus in plain-but-faint sight but it took the Herschels to recognise it.

Brown and Co. settled down and moved on after a while and renamed his three new planets with more gravitas: Santa to Haumea; Xena to Eris; Easterbunny to Makemake (Easter Island deity!).  Eris turns out to be the biggest of a current count of 1500 TNOs. But I don't think the wound really healed and ten years later Brown was after Ortiz again with "this hurts me more than it hurts you" head shaking post in which Brown finds Ortiz going a step beyond what the data is capable of supporting. I think it is not bitter-and-vindictive sniping: the TNO world is vast out there but small and exclusive here on earth and if you're in the club then you read everything by friends-and-rivals with care and attention. It's actually a rather good anecdote about how science makes progress by pushing out and rowing back.

The discovery of Haumea, Eris and other lumpy objects beyond Neptune led to the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf-planet or plutoid. Brown writes in an engaging gallop and if you can find his book "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming" cheap, it's probably worth reading. You can hear Brown defend his position as Mike the Pluto-killer.  He'll have to be circumspect in what he says about Nibiru, lest he be taken out by the shadow government

I'm a little bit embarrassed to report that in a previous life beyond my two-week event horizon, I was onto the same story a year ago, from a slightly different angle.

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