Life of a scientist

One of the best books I've read this year was How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, a book by Caltech astronmer Mike Brown.  He discovered Eris, the Pluto-sized object in the Kuiper belt, that caused Pluto to get demoted.

If you liked Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, you will also like "How I Killed Pluto".  In both these books, you have a hugely successful scientist talking with a great degree of self-awareness and wit.  These are people you would love to spend an afternoon listening to.

Here is Mike Brown at his wittiest. He is talking about why he was science-minded when he was growing up:
I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, a thoroughly dedicated rocket town. The father of everyone I knew—mine included—was some sort of engineer working to build the Apollo rockets to send men to the moon. For a while as a child, I thought that when you grew up you became a rocket engineer if you were a boy and you married a rocket engineer if you were a girl; few other options in the world appeared to exist.
But something happened.  He happened to start observing and noting the positions of the planets.  As it so happened, there was something interesting going on at just that time:
Jupiter, closer to the sun, is comparatively fast; it takes only twelve years to go completely around the sky. When it gets to where it started, though, Saturn has moved on. It takes another eight years—twenty years in total—for Jupiter to finally catch up to Saturn once again so they come close together in a conjunction just like the one I noticed when I was fifteen. I’ve often wondered about the timing of this conjunction. If I had been born a few years earlier, I would have looked up at age fifteen, but Jupiter would not yet have caught up to Saturn’s position in the sky. I would have noticed only one bright planet moving a little below Orion instead of two. Would I have noticed their dance? Would I have become the person I am today, someone whose first instinct when walking outside at night is to always look up, check the stars, look for planets, locate the moon? It’s impossible to know, but it’s always hard not to feel that in some ways, for me at least, perhaps the early astrologers were right: Perhaps my fate actually was determined by the positions of the planets at the moment of my birth.
Something that would strike you, as it struck me, was that someone like that would have something else in the skies that caught his interest no matter when he was growing up.  Still, this theme of happenstance also plays into how he got interested in finding new planets:
What I didn’t immediately grasp when Jane Luu joined me on the roof overlooking the San Francisco Bay at the Berkeley astronomy department in 1992 was that the discovery of the Kuiper belt gave Pluto a context. It took me and most other astronomers a few more years to realize that Pluto is neither lonely nor an oddball, but rather part of this vast new population called the Kuiper belt. Just as the explosion of asteroid discoveries 150 years earlier had forced astronomers to reconsider the status of Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta and change them from full-fledged planets to simply the largest of the collection of asteroids, the new discovery of the Kuiper belt would certainly force astronomers to reconsider the status of Pluto.
And finally, something that all meteorologist friends can sympathize with:
For someone looking for planets, I spent an awful lot of my time looking at computer code and numeric outputs instead. My nights were spent not outside staring at the sky but inside staring at numbers and computer programs and doing every test conceivable. I needed to make sure the software wasn’t going to make any mistakes. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t do anything stupid that made me miss planets that were right in front of me.
And all of us hard-science folks who have dealt with the seemingly unscientific medical profession can definitely see ourselves here:
She had a July 11 due date, and though there was not much I could do to influence anything, I could nonetheless obsess about what, precisely, a due date means. I asked anyone who I thought might have some insight. I know, for example, that due dates are simply calculated by adding forty weeks to the start of the mother’s last menstrual cycle. But how effective is that? How many babies are born on their due dates? Our child-birthing class teacher: “Oh, only five percent of babies are actually born on their due dates.” Me: “So are half born before, half after?” Teacher: “Oh, you can’t know when the baby is going to come.” Me: “I get it. I just want to know the statistics.” Teacher: “The baby will come when it is ready.” I asked an obstetrician. Doctor: “The due date is just an estimate. There is no way of knowing when the baby will come.” Me: “But of your patients, what fraction delivers before, and what fraction delivers after the due date?” Doctor: “I try not to think of it that way.” I propose a simple experiment for anyone who works in the field of childbirth. Here’s all you have to do. Spend a month in a hospital. Every time a child is born, ask the mother what the original due date was. Determine how many days early or late each child is. Plot these dates on a piece of graph paper. Draw a straight line for the bottom horizontal axis. Label the middle of the axis zero. Each grid point to the left is then the number of days early. Each grid point to the right is the number of days late. Count how many children were born on their precise due dates. Count up that number of points on the vertical axis of your graph and mark the spot at zero. Do the same with the number of children born one day late. Two days late. Three. Four. Keep going. Now do the early kids. When you have finished plotting all of the due dates, label the top of the plot “The distribution of baby delivery dates compared to their due date.” Make a copy. Send it to me in the mail. My guess is that you will have something that looks like a standard bell curve. I would hope that the bell would be more or less centered at zero. It would either be tall and skinny (if most kids are born within a few days of their due dates) or short and fat (if there is quite a wide range around the due dates). One thing I know, though, is that the bell would have a dent on the right side. At least around here, no kids are born more than a week or two after their due dates. Everyone is induced by then. I am usually capable of allowing myself to give up on trying to get the world to see things in my scientific, statistical, mathematical way. But this mattered to me. If I was at a dinner party with Diane and the subject of due dates was broached, Diane would turn to me with a slightly mortified look in her eyes and whisper, “Please?” I would rant about doctors. About teachers. About lack of curiosity and dearth of scientific insight and fear of math. I would speculate on the bell curve and about how fat or skinny it would be and how much it might be modified by inductions and C-sections, and whether different hospitals had different distributions. Inevitably the people at the dinner party would be friends from Caltech. Most had kids. Most of the fathers were scientists. Most of the mothers were not. (Even today things remain frighteningly skewed, though interestingly, most of my graduate students in recent years have been female. Times have no choice but to change.) As soon as I started my rant, the fathers would all join in: “Yeah! I could never get that question answered, either,” and they would bring up obscure statistical points of their own. The mothers would all roll their eyes, lean in toward Diane, and whisper, “I am so sorry. I know just how you feel,” and inquire as to how she was feeling and sleeping.
Of course just because he plays down his successes doesn't mean that he isn't an obsessive, gifted genius.  It's just that his wit and self-deprecation make this a highly readable book.

Incidentally, it was a NPR interview by him soon after the vote that triggered a set of concepts that led to my paper on a new way to find storms in images ("enhanced watershed").  So, I owe him more than just a good book review!

Two approaches to space

There are few popular media articles that can explain why a poor country like India would invest in a space program, and why that space program could maintain bipartisan support through the decades.  This article is worth reading:

I don't agree with the conclusion in the article, though.  There is room for both NASA's wide-ranging program centered around exploration and ISRO's pragmatic, technology-driven one.