Environment & Science

The 'Pluto killer' and the rocker: Meet the odd couple behind the Planet 9 discovery

Caltech astronomer Mike Brown points out the
Caltech astronomer Mike Brown points out the "Predicted Orbit", in yellow, of the 9th Planet at the Caltech Seismology Lab in Pasadena, California on January 20,2016.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Caltech astronomer Mike Brown points out the
Caltech professor Mike Brown and assistant professor Konstanin Batygin have been working together to investigate distant objects in our solar system for more than a year and a half. The two bring very different perspectives to the work: Brown is an observer, used to looking at the sky to try and anchor everything in the reality of what can be seen; Batygin is a theorist who considers how things might work from a physics standpoint.
Lance Hayashida/Caltech
Caltech astronomer Mike Brown points out the
Caltech's Konstantin Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science, and Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy, discuss new research that provides evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system.
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One is a fresh-faced math wiz who plays in a rock band. The other is famous for kicking Pluto out of the family of planets. Both were thrust into the media spotlight Thursday when news of their groundbreaking theory broke.

The two Caltech researchers believe they've found evidence a new ninth planet exists in our solar system.

At Caltech’s media center, reporters lined up like customers at deli counter — waiting their turn to talk individually with the trailblazing researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown.

They'd been sitting for interviews all morning, and given the number of reporters wanting to talk to them, it seemed likely the sun would be low in the sky before they finished.

"I’m good, I’m good," Batygin joked. "I can handle it… I think."

At 29, with spiked hair and a shark’s tooth necklace, Batygin doesn’t fit the stereotype of a math genius. He’s cool and confident. He’s comfortable in the limelight – but he didn’t expect this.

"You know — it’s crazy to propose there is an unseen planet in the distant solar system," he said.

California Institute of Technology scientist Konstantin Batygin, Assistant Professor of Planetary Science comments on his research at his office in Pasadena, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016.  Scientists reported Wednesday, they finally have
California Institute of Technology scientist Konstantin Batygin, Assistant Professor of Planetary Science comments on his research at his office in Pasadena, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Scientists reported Wednesday, they finally have "good evidence" for Planet 9, a true ninth planet on the fringes of our solar system. The gas giant is thought to be almost as big as Neptune and orbiting billions of miles beyond Neptune's path, distant enough to take 10,000 to 20,000 years to circle the sun. Planet 9, as Batygin and astronomer Mike Brown call it, hasn't been spotted yet. They base their findings on mathematical and computer modeling, and anticipate its discovery via telescope within five years.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

In fact, when he first began investigating why some distant space objects had strange orbits, he would make fun of the idea a planet was to blame. He and Brown took to giving their hypothesized Plant X silly names.

"There’s 'planet fatty', there’s 'planet of the apes'," he said.

This isn’t the first time Batygin has grappled with a tough cosmic riddle.

As an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, his astronomy professor Greg Laughlin gave him a mathematical problem that had stymied astronomers for over 300 years: Do planetary orbits remain stable over time?

"And amazingly enough over the course of his undergraduate career, he solved that problem," Laughlin told KPCC Thursday.

Laughlin said Batygin was a genuine genius, but he carried himself more like a fun-loving rocker. In fact, he was even in a band.

"A lot of undergraduates were in bands, but what made Konstantin’s band unusual was that his dad was also in the band," Laughlin said.

The band was called the Seventh Season. Batygin sang and played guitar.

Video: Rocker scientist's band The Seventh Season

Laughlin said the fact that Batygin wasn’t embarrassed to rock out with his dad showed maturity. It also showed he could work well with people outside his of age group.

That would come in handy years later at Caltech when he teamed up with seasoned planetary scientist Mike Brown.

"Finding a planet is really what I set out to do 20 years ago when I started this research in the outer solar system," Brown said.

He may have set out to find a planet all those years ago. Instead, he first became famous for taking one away. In August of 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet – in large part thanks to Brown’s research.

He owned the fact, writing the book "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming" and even making his twitter handle "@PlutoKiller" - but he wasn’t totally happy about it.

"I was left with the realization, which I have said a million times, that’s it, there are eight planets, and you are not going to find any more," he said. "There are no more to be found."

Caltech Astronomer Mike Brown, briefs the media in front of a screen showing the
Caltech Astronomer Mike Brown, briefs the media in front of a screen showing the "Predicted Orbit", in yellow, of the 9th Planet at a Caltech Seismology Lab in Pasadena, California on January 20,2016. Brown and his colleague, planetary scientists Konstantin Batygin, reported having "good evidence" of the 9th planet on the fringes of our solar system.
Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Flash-forward a few years. Brown was at Caltech working with Konstantin Batygin trying to explain why some distant space rocks have such strange orbits. It was as if they were pulled by the gravity of something else.

"The first thing we actually thought was maybe, the gravitational signature that we are seeing is just wrong," Brown said. "Maybe it’s a fluke, maybe it’s just a coincidence."

They crunched the numbers, and it didn’t look like a coincidence.

So they looked for other explanations. Brown and Batygin’s offices at Caltech are just two doors apart, so they’d hold impromptu meetings. They even became exercise buddies.

Batigyn says they tried every scenario they could think of to explain these orbits without adding a planet to the mix.

"And time and time again, we failed. And we sort of as a last resort thought, well okay let’s give this a shot," he said.

They created computer models of our solar system with a planet ten times the size of Earth lurking way past Neptune. They ran simulations, studied the results, and the new planet theory was the only thing that seemed to fit.

There’s still a lot of work to do to prove this new planet exists, but they’re both confident it’s out there.

Brown says this discovery is making good on something he told his young daughter a few years back. At the time he was still getting mean comments about Pluto.

"She said, 'Daddy, you know what we should do? You should find a new planet, and then people will stop being mad about Pluto.' So I said 'Okay, sure, I’ll go do that.' So she’s happy. She knows it was really for her that I found this new one," Brown said.

As for Batygin, like any 29 year-old, he celebrated the announcement with good company and lots of champagne.