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Killer Confesses To Pluto's Murder In Tell-All Book

Astronomer Mike Brown didn't mean to kill Pluto -- or so he claims.

Brown says the ex-ninth planet was just collateral damage in his search for the 10th. The story of that search -- and the subsequent demotion of Pluto that raised the ire of elementary school students everywhere -- is in his new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Brown tells Weekend Edition Sunday's Liane Hansen that he had been searching the night sky for years, trying to find the elusive "Planet X."

Scientists had speculated for decades that there might be another heavenly body floating far out in the solar system. Brown says he knew what he was looking for, just not whether it actually existed.

"I spent many years looking and finding things that were smaller than Pluto, but I never quite knew if there was going to be something as big as Pluto out there or not," he says.

There was.

Michael Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. He was also named one of Wired Online's Top Sexiest Geeks in 2006. The planet behind him may or may not be on his hit list.
Damian Dovarganes / AP
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AP
Michael Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. He was also named one of Wired Online's Top Sexiest Geeks in 2006. The planet behind him may or may not be on his hit list.

Brown did indeed find the 10th planet. He nicknamed it Xena, a nod to both Planet X hunters and the sci-fi action series Xena: Warrior Princess. For fear that his young daughter would disapprove, however, Brown and his colleagues officially named it Eris, after the goddess of discord.

The new name reflected the uproar Brown's discovery launched in the astronomical community.

At first, scientists thought Eris was bigger than Pluto, though newer research says the two bodies are about the same size. But rather than make Eris the 10th planet, the International Astronomical Union made a shocking choice: They demoted both to dwarf planets.

Pluto was stripped of its planetary status, and henceforth, the solar system would contain a mere eight planets.

The wrath of Pluto-loving children everywhere descended on Brown. "I got hate mail from kids," he says.

It's gotten worse as those kids have gotten older. Now "they tend to be Saturday-3-a.m. obscene phone calls, which are really quite amusing."

Another consequence of Pluto's demotion also falls to schoolchildren. The well-known device for memorizing the planets no longer applies: "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas."

In his book, Brown has a new suggestion: "Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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