Planetary Astronomer Michael Brown to Give Aaronson Memorial Lecture

Brown's 2003 discovery led to demotion of Pluto as a planet.
Nov. 14, 2008
Free Public Lecture: "How I Killed Pluto"
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21
Integrated Learning Center, Room 120
Michael E. Brown
Michael E. Brown
Artist's concept of the view from the dwarf planet, Eris, with Dysnomia in the background, looking back towards the distant sun.
Artist's concept of the view from the dwarf planet, Eris, with Dysnomia in the background, looking back towards the distant sun.

Michael E. Brown, a planetary astronomer best known for a 2003 discovery that led to Pluto's demotion from planet to dwarf planet, will give the 2008 Marc Aaronson Memorial Lecture at The University of Arizona on Friday, Nov. 21.

Brown has titled his lecture, "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming." The lecture will be at 7:30 p.m. in UA's Integrated Learning Center, Room 120. It is free and open to the public.

A faculty member at the California Institute of Technology, Brown searches for and studies bodies at the edge of the solar system. Five years ago he discovered Eris, an object more massive than Pluto and more than three times farther than Pluto from the sun. Eris was the largest object found in orbit around the sun since the discovery of Neptune in 1846.

Brown's discovery sparked a furor when it led to the reclassification of Pluto as a "dwarf" planet because Pluto is smaller than terrestrial planets and several giant moons in the solar system.

The International Astronomical Union's 2006 decision to downgrade Pluto's planetary status is particularly irksome to many in Arizona because the late Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, was an astronomer with Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

The demotion of Pluto set off a storm of complaints, protests and discussions that continues today. But does it matter? Scientists on both sides of the issue say yes.

Brown will discuss the astronomical quest that led to the discovery of Pluto, how the continuation of that quest inevitably led to Pluto's demotion, and why such things not only matter, but are critical to teaching people about the solar system around us.

Time magazine named Brown one of the "100 Most Influential People" in 2006. In addition to writing nearly 100 scientific papers, he has written for the New York Times, Physics Today and the World Book Science Year. Brown received his bachelors degree from Princeton University in 1987, his doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley in 1994 and a number of prestigious awards and fellowships.

The Aaronson Memorial Lecture honors the late Marc Aaronson, a Steward Observatory astronomer who died at age 36 in 1987 in an accident while making astronomical observations on Kitt Peak, Ariz. The memorial lectureship fund is administered by The University of Arizona, with additional funding from Steward Observatory and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.