Michael E. Brown

One of today’s American astronomers, Michael E. Brown who is also referred to as Mike Brown is the California Institute of Technology’s Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy since 2003, and has been a member of their faculty since 1996. His specialty is discovering and studying bodies which are located on the edge of the solar system. Along with his team, he discovered TNOs or trans-Neptunian objects—most notably Eris, the dwarf planet. This dwarf planet is the only identified TNO which is bigger than Pluto, and is the largest object identified in the solar system in the past 150 years.

Mike is known to have referred to himself as the one who “killed Pluto” since he was one of those who supported to Pluto being downgraded as just a dwarf planet after discovering Eris along with other TNOs. Of note, this astronomer is also a published author of the book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, which was published in 2010. This book is a memoir of his discoveries which led to the demotion of Pluto’s planetary status mixed in with some family life as well.


Early Life and Educational Background

A native of Huntsville, Alabama, Mike was a 1983 graduate of the Virgil I. Grissom High School. His father had been an engineer who worked on computers which were inside the rocket ships — these computers were the ones in charge of the rocket navigation, and Mike’s father had been one of the brains behind the computers that were in Saturn V and the Lunar Module. It was his exposure to his father’s work that helped foster his interest for space discovery.

In 1987, he earned his A.B. in Physics after completing his education in Princeton University where he was also one of the members of the Princeton Tower Club. He took his graduate courses at the University of California in Berkeley. There he earned his M.A. in Astronomy in 1990. Four years later, he earned his Ph.D.

During his academic years, he had been the recipient of a number of awards. He won the Urey Prize which was given to the best young planetary scientist and this was given by the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences. He also received the Presidential Early Career Award and a Sloan Fellowship. In 2012, he won the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics and in 2014, he had recently been inducted into the National Academy of Science. The one which started his career though was when he received a certain honorable mention in the science fair he participated back in fifth grade.

Discoveries and Contributions to Astronomy

He is mostly known for his discovery of Eris—the dwarf planet which led to the demotion of Pluto as one of the 9 planets of the solar system. Other than Eris, Mike is also known for discovering other TNOs at the edge of the solar system. Interestingly, the informal names of Eris and its one moon Dysomnia had been Xena and Gabriel—these were the two main characters of the T.V. program Xena: Warrior Princess. Also, he was the one who discovered Makemake, one of the three largest objects in the Kuiper belt alongside Eris and Pluto.

Haumea, a dwarf planet being observed by Mike and his team, caused some controversy in his career. The discovery of this dwarf planet, however, was announced by José Luis Ortiz Moreno. Ortiz’s team from the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain had initially been supported by Mike, and he gave them the credit for this discovery.

After further investigation however, it was shown how a website which had archives of information from Brown and his team’s telescopes used for Haumea were accessed three days before Ortiz made the announcement of his discovery. The IP addresses were traced to the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia—and this was where Ortiz worked.

Even more interesting was that the access to the website archive were on dates after Brown published his abstract concerning an upcoming conference where he was about to announce his discovery of Haumea. This, in turn, resulted in an exchange of emails between Mike Brown and José Luis Ortiz Moreno. In the emails, one of the replies from Ortiz even hinted at how Mike was “hiding objects” and that they were only emailing since Mike did not report the object upon discovery.

As a response, Mike said how this statement from Ortiz contradicts the established scientific practice of thoroughly analyzing one’s research until the researcher is satisfied that his findings are accurate before submitting it for peer review and ultimately, making the public announcement about the discovery.

After this incident, José Carlos del Toro, the IAA director had chosen to distance himself from Ortiz and Mike made petitions to the International Astronomical Union to give credit to his team instead of to Ortiz’s where the discovery of Haumea is concerned. According to the IAU, they had not acknowledged a specific discoverer of Haumea yet—however, its discovery date as well as location is known to as March 7, 2003 and that it had been at the Sierra Nevada Observatory where Ortiz worked. Interestingly enough, the IAU accepted the name Haumea which Mike had suggested, instead of Ataecina which was suggested by Ortiz.

Achievements and Personal Life

In 2006, he was included in Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. A year later, he received California Institute of Technology’s most prestigious teaching honor which is the Feynman Prize. An asteroid discovered on April 28, 1998 was named after him as well – Asteroid 11714 Mikebrown.

Articles about Mike and his works had been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, as well as Discovery, and his discoveries made the front page of several international publications. He is also included in the list of Most Powerful Angelinos of Los Angeles Magazine.

On March 1, 2003, he married Dianne Binney who he has a daughter with—Lilah Binney Brown. In 2006, he was one of Wired Online’s Top Ten Sexiest Geeks, something that whenever mentioned, never fails to make Dianne laugh.