After driving through beer free and - despite of that - beguiling lands of Navajo reservation we found Flagstaff. It’s a refreshingly normal and unexpectedly liberal town in otherwise birthist and tea partying Arizona. Science has yet to analyze a strong correlation between ‘no guns allowed’ signs and good coffee and decent food, but to our relief such a connection exists and can be readily tested in Flagstaff.
Besides being a stop on now defunct Route 66 and still operating Amtrack 2256 miles long Southwest Chief line (only 2 days’ trip will get you from the Windy City to the City of Angels) Flagstaff is a town with no less than 4 decent micro breweries. For the record: we’ve only tried one of them. Flagstaff is also a place where the Lowell Observatory is located. Percival Lowell who founded it hoped for a discovery of the mysterious Planet X allegedly responsible for irregularities of the Neptune orbit. The entire calculation was wrong mostly due to incorrect assumptions about Neptune and Uranus mass, but that did not stop the wealthy Bostonian from sinking a million dollars into Arizonian observatory. Well, his wife had some reservations. By strange coincidence the whole venture did result in a discovery of a new planet-like body, but Percival did not live to see it. His wife Constance however did and unable to recover her part of the fortune graciously and modestly agreed to let her beautiful name to be used for a newly discovered celestial body. Poor woman did not catch a break with that either: the name Pluto was proposed by a schoolgirl from England who received decidedly non astronomical amount of 5 pounds for her idea. And thus Pluto became a planet, and was a planet until 2006 when it was demoted to a dwarf category. Since it takes poor Pluto 248 Earth years to circumvent Sun, it was a planet only for a small fraction of its year.
The story of Pluto planetary demise is no less interesting than a story of its discovery. It’s told by a guy who in his own words killed Pluto. While I am not a big fan of criminal novels, this one reads like one. It even has a crime in it. It also have romance, comedy but, most importantly, it has science. And it has computers. What more can one ask for?
For a scientist, Mike Brown is a decent writer. More engaging when he writes about universe than when he shares his personal life, but may be this is just a function of what I, personally, am interested in. Due to obvious reason I rather liked the description of how computers and the Internet changed the astronomy. No more lonely nights atop of a mountain, pointing the telescope, playing with blink comparator. It’s all been replaced by long nights of being perched on a comfy chair in your dusty office coding and staring into computer screen. Sounds a bit less romantic but such is the price of progress. To me the only surprising thing is that astronomers have to write their own software. And if they do, why isn’t it open source. I am sorry if I trivialize it but it looks to me as if most algorithms used to detect planets are more or less variations on image analysis. I bet I and most of my colleagues from the field of software engineering could write code better than Mike Brown. How many celestial bodies escape us because of a poorly written code?
In some cases apparently discovering new planets can be achieved by scanning online data of telescope operations conducted by your better founded peers. And if you announce a new discovery be prepared that your browser access logs are going to become public knowledge. This is how we effortlessly cross the border between illegal download of the latest Lost episode and revealing the rocks lurking at the boundaries of the Solar system.
We have more and more computing power at our fingertips. Well, some of us do. At any given moment I can point my $20 Android phone to the sky and it’s going to show me all the planets, stars and constellations. Clearly labeled and magically moving around as I turn. Computers can analyze all the sky photos that have ever been taken. And yet the photos taken by publicly funded observatories are not always publicly available. Astronomers, planet seekers and hackers alike should have access to all the data that has been gathered. What are we afraid of? New discoveries?