The Morgan Science Lecture 2017 - Dr. Michael Brown

Photo by Eric Ortiz

The annual Morgan Science Lecture series continued on March 23 with speaker Dr. Michael Brown, who is best known for his part in the demotion of Pluto’s planetary status.

Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. “Among his many scientific accomplishments, he is best known for his discovery of Eris, the most massive object found in the solar system in 150 years, and the object which led to the debate and eventual demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a dwarf planet” according to Brown’s Caltech biography.

During his lecture, Brown explained that early astronomers were unable to study the solar system beyond Saturn, because they were limited to the planets visible to the eye. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by its movement across the sky from night to night, which is how Brown said you can tell something is part of a solar system.

As astronomers were able to better track the orbits of Pluto, its features seemed less and less normal, in comparison to the other planets.

With Brown’s discovery of Eris, Pluto’s planetary status began to be questioned. In the end, Brown, along with Appalachian State University Physics and Astronomy professor Dr. Richard Gray and the other members of the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status.

cartoon graphic depicting the burial of Pluto

Photo of Browns' Presentation Slide by Eric Ortiz

Brown, along with one of his former graduate students who also became a professor at Caltech, has continued his research on items like Pluto in our solar system which has lead to what Brown believes to be the evidence for the existence of “Planet 9.”

After mapping the orbits of many Pluto-like objects in the outer solar system, Brown and others noticed trends, that when mathematically modeled, suggest the presence of an undiscovered massive planet. Astronomers believe Planet 9 can be found in our sky somewhere between Aldebaran and the Pleiades - they just have not seen it yet.

Brown has shared his work with the world with the hope that someone will locate Planet 9 even if he is unable to.

In an interview with Caltech, Brown said: “I would love to find it. But I'd also be perfectly happy if someone else found it...We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching.”

The Morgan Science Lecture Series was established by a gift from the G. William Morgan Family. The series rotates between the different science departments at Appalachian State University and was hosted by the Department of Physics and Astronomy this year. The series stimulates scientific understanding and research among the sciences by bringing researchers to campus.

Dr. Michael Brown
Published: Apr 6, 2017 4:06pm