J-School blog #4

Prepare for a slew of posts, as I upload the blogs I made for class and rant about them:

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Look Up More

The cold dome of the observatory magnified voices and caused conversations to intermingle. A graduate student was explaining something to a visitor, and kept repeating “The universe is spinning…“.

R.E.M.’s Man on the Moon was playing softly near the red light of the computers in an otherwise dark room, but as I approached the telescope and stood underneath the slither of sky exposed through the open roof, the song strengthened. I had hoped for Saturn, but the scattered daytime mist had gathered into a wretched cold fog, and the telescope was pointed at the Moon. Bending slightly, I raised one squinted eye to the end of the great magnifier and glimpsed the shadows on the Moon, now hazy craters, mountains, plains and peaks. This week, I took my first look through a telescope.

Early-evening stars from the UBC campus. That’s Orion at the bottom right there, but, um, er, what are the others? (Photo by me).

If there’s one prefix to physics that can electrify even the most science-cynical, it’s astro: star in Latin. Nowadays, most of us won’t even notice the movements of the planets as they skit across the sky in relation to the relatively fixed constellations. I can just about pick out Orion, The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia at a push, but the myriad other stars are just pinpoints of light to me (if they are even visible at all  through urban light pollution).

There are some, however, who didn’t stop at learning the basic constellations or the phases of the Moon. These people are usually your favourite uncles, but in 2006, one of them killed Pluto. To international outcry, what we grew up with as the ninth planet was demoted to a new category: dwarf planet.

This is the total story as most people know it, but to clear his name and appease some of the schoolchildren who wrote him hate mail, planet-killer Mike Brown wrote a book about his quest to vanquish Pluto, aptly titled How I killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. The truth, as is often the case, is much more interesting. The discovery that finally demoted Pluto was that of another, larger planet further out; and even this was just the last of a series of astonishing findings of objects at the far edges of the galaxy. Quaoar is an extremely shiny icy object half the size of Pluto orbiting the Sun at a remarkably circular orbit (Pluto has a very elliptical orbit that occasionally brings it closer to the Sun than Neptune). Sedna has such an extraordinary orbit that at it’s closest, it’s three times further out form the Earth than Pluto, and at its most distant it wanders out to 900 times Earth’s distance from the Sun.

The object that ended it all was Eris: a ball of ice 27% larger than Pluto and further out than Sedna, on a highly elliptical orbit around our Sun, which it would see as just an extra-bright star. Members of the International Astronomical Union meeting in 2006 voted that is Eris was not allowed to be a planet, then neither was Pluto. The solar system went back to eight planets, just as it had been before the discovery of Pluto by dedicated sky-searcher Clyde Tombaugh.

Mike Brown also relentlessly searched the sky, never being satisfied until he found what was then called a planet; and redefined the term forever.

Pluto’s demotion was not the shrinking of our solar system, but the expansion of it further into endless space.

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