When I discovered Eris [named for the Greek goddess of discord], and that it was as big as Pluto or larger, it seemed it was going to have to be a planet -- or Pluto was going to have to be demoted. I always figured that astronomers would never have the guts to get rid of Pluto as a planet, even though it was the right thing to do. It became obvious from a scientific point of view that Pluto really belonged with the Kuiper Belt rather than the planets. But I didn't believe that astronomers were ever going to demote Pluto. There would be a huge public outcry. The Hayden Planetarium in New York had [already] sort of taken Pluto out of its planets [list], and that led to this big protest. People were not going to let it go easily.
Ultimately the decision was to bump Pluto from the planet category.
I had no idea how it was going to go. For the first year, I was willing to go along with 10 planets because I figured it's win-win -- either they're going to call [Eris] the 10th planet, or they're going to demote Pluto. The International Astronomical Union -- the U.N. of astronomy -- has the job and the right to name things in the sky and to classify them. I had no idea it was going to turn into a two-week-long astronomical catfight in Prague. Scientists sometimes cannot distinguish between scientific argument and scientists arguing, and this was mostly just scientists arguing.
Now Pluto is being called a "dwarf planet"; it sounds to me like an honorary term.What would you say to Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, in the wake of all this?
I would just be impressed. Pluto is a tiny little thing; finding it in 1930 was a tremendous discovery. Who cares if it's a planet or not a planet? It's much more interesting that it was the first Kuiper Belt object [found], and the next Kuiper object wasn't found until 1992. That tells you what a tremendous job he did. I'd love to sit down with him and talk about the sky, and what he saw and how he did it. He looked at every little square inch of the photographic plates; he stayed up all night taking the pictures; he developed the film. What I did took a lot of work, but I had computers and [a] robotic telescope. I still don't understand how he did it.
Pluto's status as a planet isn't your only controversy. Your team found another "trans Neptunian" object in 2004, the one now named Haumea. Before you could publicly announce it, Spanish scientists said they'd discovered it, and there was a tussle over who had actually found it and who got credit.
I got this e-mail saying, "Oh look, somebody else discovered the object you were about to announce." I am a trusting person, and even when people started asking did they do something [wrong], I was, "Nobody would do that." There's always a chance it was just an incredible set of coincidences. There was one chance [to sort it out] back when the IAU could have tried to understand it. Nobody wanted to know the answer, other than me. I am a little sad about that. I think something bad happened. Either there was an egregious case of scientific fraud, or there was a pretty egregious case of big-name scientists stomping on a small-name scientist, which would be me as the stomper. One of those two things happened.
The indisputable facts are that two days before they announced they had discovered this object, they accessed our web pages that showed where the object was. [My website] was protected, but one of the telescopes we were using kept [records] on a server in Ohio. It never occurred to anyone that this would be a problem. But if you know a telescope [is recording] here, and then here, and then here, then you say, "Oh, they're tracking something that's moving."
They claim it was pure coincidence. They never had to really show any [research], they just said, "We discovered it." They still have never written any scientific papers showing what they did and how they did it. I got to name the object, Haumea [Hawaiian goddess of childbirth], but [on] the official list, the name of the discoverer is blank. It is the largest object in the solar system discovered by nobody.
What does that do to concerns about scientific standards and rigor?
For me it was a big wakeup call. There's a conflict in science that's becoming more severe. When you make a discovery, the first thing you want to do is tell everybody because it's the coolest thing you've ever done. Plus, you don't know if somebody down the road made the same discovery or will make the same discovery tomorrow. But as a scientist, you want to do the job right. You don't want to be cold fusion. The right scientific way is slow. If I discover something today, I could post it online and it would be everywhere the next day. I'm not going to do it, but I can see the temptation.
You've gotten sad letters from little children sticking up for Pluto, and some, well, some nastier comments from older people.