How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming - Mike Brown (2010)

Chapter 10. STEALING THE SHOW

The Internet chat group that had been irritated with me over the discovery and naming of Quaoar and Sedna was up in arms again. I didn’t know it, but Ortiz himself was apparently an occasional member of this group, and many were rallying around to defend him against the onslaught of the evil American astronomers trying to deny him credit for his discovery. Except, of course, there was no onslaught. I told anyone who would listen that Ortiz had indeed discovered 2003 EL61/Santa. Since I couldn’t really be excoriated for trying to steal Ortiz’s credit, they would find something else to rail against. They then argued that I had made up the story that someone had found the coordinates of Xena and Easterbunny, so that I would have an excuse to hold a press conference the day after Ortiz’s discovery in order to overshadow him. And then they hit on a new accusation: I was bad because I had been trying to keep Santa and Xena and Easter bunny secret. I chuckled and shook my head, given how hard we had tried to do everything correctly by scientific standards.

Even Ortiz got into the act, declaring in an interview:

With technology many times more advanced than ours, Brown’s team had discovered three big objects many months ago, but they were hiding its [sic] existence from the international scientific community, as they did before with Quaoar and Sedna.

This secrecy was useful to Brown, as it allowed him to study his own findings in detail and exclusively. But his actions harm science and don’t follow the established procedures, that imply notifying the existence of a new object to the astronomical community as soon as it’s discovered.

Sigh. I almost sat down and wrote a long article on why the instant announcement of discoveries is precisely what good scientists don’t do and that the established scientific procedures are to confirm findings and write scientific papers before making public announcements, but I decided that the accusations were sufficiently ridiculous that I should ignore them and let them fade into their deserved oblivion.

I will admit, though, to being stung and irritated to read Ortiz’s comments. I didn’t care about what nonastronomers were saying on chat groups, but I thought it harmful for professional astronomers to spout such nonscientific nonsense. And it seemed particularly uncharitable given how hard I had been defending Ortiz against all accusations and deflecting credit to him whenever possible. Odd, I thought.

Given all of the chatter, I decided to write to Ortiz again to assure him that I considered him the legitimate discoverer of 2003 EL61. I asked him if he had thought about what name he would like to give it. Only the discoverer is allowed to propose a name, so this was a pretty unambiguous signal of my intent. I told him that we would be interested in giving the moon that we had discovered a name that fit with the name that they proposed for 2003 EL61. Ortiz wrote back thanking me for asking but saying that because of the recent onslaught they had had no time to even begin considering a name.

The chat group continued to try to prove my malicious nature. One of the main proponents of this theme was the German amateur astronomer who had, a year and a half earlier, tried to thwart our naming of Sedna by naming some of his own objects Sedna. He had, interestingly, even taken part a bit in the Ortiz discovery. After Ortiz found the object in his old data, he had contacted the German amateur to get a current picture of the object. The amateur had promptly complied, becoming in the process a secondary member of the discovery team. It was an odd coincidence that the one person who appeared to have the biggest ax to grind against me happened to be involved in all of this. But coincidences happen all the time. I thought nothing of it. Brian Marsden, when he first learned this, said, “I smell a rat in here somewhere.” Marsden, as I continued to learn, has an acute sense of smell.

Interestingly, after some time, a countertheme began to develop among the members of the chat group. Not everyone appeared to be convinced that the discovery of 2003 EL61/Santa had been legitimate on the part of the Spanish group, and they started asking Ortiz probing questions. One particular question interested me: Did Ortiz know about our discovery of Santa before he claimed that he had discovered it himself? Had he ever accessed the website with all of the coordinates? Ortiz never responded, though his friend the German amateur defended him viciously through counterattack and accusation. It was all quite ugly, though perhaps no more so than many other chat groups on the Internet these days. I figured it was best to stay out of the fray.

A week and a half after the initial announcements, I got a phone call out of the blue from an astronomer I didn’t know. Rick Pogge was a professor at Ohio State University, and his website database was the one that had been tapped into, forcing us to make the sudden announcement of Xena and Easterbunny. He was apologetic about what had happened. I told him not to worry; it would not have occurred to us or to someone else that anyone could have figured out a way to use these generally dull databases for nefarious purposes. And it would have been even less likely to occur to us that someone would actually do it. He then described all of his recent changes to the database, explaining how this sort of thing would never occur again.

“Great,” I said. “That sounds great.”

“But there’s something more that you need to know,” Rick said.

More?

Rick then told me an interesting story.

He, like everyone else, had first learned about Xena and Easterbunny when he’d read the accounts of the press conference a week and a half earlier. As scattered press reports came out about someone tapping into some database, Rick first thought it was a really unfortunate story; then he thought, Wait, is that my database? Indeed, Rick had built the camera that was mounted on the telescope in Chile that we had been using to monitor Santa, Xena, and Easterbunny. One particularly nice feature of that telescope in Chile was that for routine observations, like taking pictures of the positions of our Kuiper belt object, we didn’t have to fly to Chile each time we wanted a picture, but instead a person permanently stationed in Chile would take the pictures we needed using the camera that Rick had built. Rick then maintained the database of observations that allowed astronomers to access their pictures after the camera had taken them.

After suspecting that perhaps it was this database that had been tapped into, Rick became curious and began to look through the computer logs to see who had accessed the database. In the years that the database had been up, it was accessed almost exclusively by people who were supposed to be accessing it: the astronomers who were using the telescope that the database related to. Occasionally inadvertent access would show up once and never again.

But the records also showed that one day in late July something odd had happened. A computer address that Rick didn’t recognize accessed the database multiple times in quick succession. Each time it accessed the database, it was pointing to a different webpage that showed the location of an object named K40506A on different dates. Rick looked up the computer address to see where it was from. It was from Spain. He looked in more detail. It was from the institute in Spain where Ortiz was a professor. This access to the database occurred two days before Ortiz announced the discovery of 2003 EL61. Ortiz had known all along.

I sat at my end of the phone, stunned. I had Rick go back and tell me precise dates, times, and the computer addresses, and I wrote them all down.

There was more.

On the first day that Ortiz had tried to announce the discovery, he had inadvertently sent the announcement through the wrong channels, so he received no reply. The next day, he had sent a much more thorough announcement, including new observations by his German friend and more data from other old images. All of these extra data would have required knowing the position of the object more accurately than before. The morning before Ortiz sent all of the old data, Rick’s database had been accessed once again. A quick flurry of websites had been viewed, each showing the position of K40506A on different nights.

I kept writing. I was going from feeling stunned to feeling slightly giddy. The Spanish guys had stolen Santa out of the database, but they had botched the job. There were fingerprints all over the scene of the crime. And now they were busted.

After I hung up the phone with Rick Pogge, I immediately called Brian Marsden.

“I knew it,” he said.

All I knew from Rick was that the computers accessing the database were at Ortiz’s institute in Spain. But Brian had an interesting idea. “Tell me those computer IP addresses,” he said. He then cross-checked them with e-mail he had received. The specific computer that had accessed the database the first time was the same computer from which the initial announcement was sent. The specific computer that had accessed the database the second time was the same computer from which the second announcement was sent. The first e-mail had come from Pablo Santos-Sanz, a student of Ortiz’s, while the second e-mail had come from Ortiz himself. The fingerprints matched perfectly.

Though I will likely never be able to confirm most of this, here is my hypothesis as to what actually happened:

On the second-to-last Wednesday in July, the titles for talks to be given at the big international conference were announced, including talks by Chad and David, which mentioned K40506A and described it as big and bright. The following Tuesday, Santos-Sanz noticed the titles, and, curious about K40506A, he typed it into Google. He was likely shocked (as I would be a week later when I did the same thing) to find precise information about where a telescope was pointed one night in May. After the initial shock, he must have felt some nervous excitement. He must have been savvy enough to realize that he might be able to find more information about where the telescope was pointed. He must have looked at the Web address and realized that it looked something like

www.astro.osu.edu/andicam/nightly_logs/2005/05/03

and he must have made the quick assumption that the last bit was the date. He changed it to something like

www.astro.osu.edu/andicam/nightly_logs/2005/05/05

and was suddenly rewarded with the position of K40506A on a different night. He collected a few more positions and set to work. Knowing precisely where the telescope was pointing over multiple nights is precisely the same as knowing where the object is on multiple nights. And knowing that means that you know enough to go find it yourself.

What happened next I cannot figure out. Here is the story as I envision it. I think that Ortiz and Santos-Sanz really were engaged in a legitimate search for objects in the Kuiper belt, even though they had not yet been successful. My guess is that they had never gotten around to writing the computer software to help them with their search, so they merely had a big pile of images dating back several years, with no way to look at them. It wouldn’t be surprising. As I had learned over the past few years, writing the computer programs to analyze the data is at least as hard as collecting the data itself. But armed with the previous positions of K40506A, Santos-Sanz no longer had to look through all of his images; he could quickly determine which ones might have the object on it, and he no longer needed to write complicated software to look through a vast pile of images. He could instantly go to the right images—the ones where he knew K40506A had to be—and do a quick search by hand. He found it. He showed Ortiz. They announced their “discovery” on Wednesday, thirty-eight hours after the first data access. They must have had a busy thirty-eight hours.

When the initial announcement received no acknowledgment (having never discovered anything before, they were unclear on the proper methods of sending in a discovery), they must have decided they needed more images to demonstrate that it was real.

At this point, it remains possible that Ortiz was in the dark about what had happened. Perhaps Santos-Sanz had not told him about the computer access. Perhaps he was going to try to make it appear as if he had gotten all of his software written after all and had made a quick and spectacular find. But on Thursday morning, the day they decided they would need more images to convince people that their discovery was real, the database was accessed again. This time the access came from Ortiz’s own computer. He did the same tricks to find more positions. Twelve hours later, Ortiz’s German amateur astronomer friend—the one who passionately disliked me—was observing the object from a telescope in Majorca. Two hours later, Ortiz re-sent an announcement of the discovery including the images from that very evening, in addition to old archival images that the German amateur had tracked down for them.

This time the announcement went through the right channels. I would find out about it a few hours later, on a Thursday afternoon, while home with Diane and a twenty-day-old Lilah. Seven hours later, I sent my e-mail to Ortiz congratulating him on his fine discovery, thinking he had discovered something in the sky, not in the bowels of the Web.

Brian Marsden had two more questions for me: What about the German amateur? Surely he was involved in this somehow. I told him no. Only the Spanish computers had accessed the database. I was certain that if the German amateur had learned about the computer logs he would not have been able to resist looking at them himself. I suspected that he had been duped like the rest of them. And he had been duped so well that he felt it right to be a vicious defender of the honesty of Ortiz.

Brian’s last question: What are you going to do about this?

I didn’t know. I hung up the phone. My anger was beginning to grow. These guys had stolen our discovery and, what seemed even worse, forced us to make an incomplete and hasty announcement of the biggest astronomical discovery of my lifetime. They had caused me to spend most of my past week at work rather than at home, where I was supposed to be on family leave. And these guys would have gotten away with it, too, if not for the careful sleuthing of Rick Pogge. What would be the right response? Public humiliation? An interstellar smack-down? I decided that, for now, the main thing I needed to do was go home.

Diane and Lilah were home. The three of us sat in our favorite resting spot—Diane and I lying in opposite directions on the sofa, our feet intertwined, Lilah alternately resting on one or the other of us.

I told Diane what had happened that day.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

I still didn’t know. I was tired. I was angry. At one stage in my life I suspect that I would have gone immediately on the offensive and publicly blindsided Ortiz with what we knew. It would have been a thorough and exceedingly satisfying public crushing. It was certainly what I believed that Ortiz deserved.

But I didn’t do it. At least not yet.

Why not?

Try as I may, I can’t put myself back into my state of mind that day. I can’t remember exactly all of the different things going on. One thing I can do, though, is go back to look at Lilah’s website from the day.

After sitting on the sofa with Diane that evening, Lilah was being fussy and wanted more attention from her parents. I got up to put her in her crib. When she finally got to sleep, I sat down at my computer and wrote a post on Lilah’s site.

It went like this:

Day 33 (9 Aug 2005): Approximately 7:30 pm. Lilah was crying immediately after being fed and I pulled out my best move, which is to dance with her to Jack Johnson, “Better When We’re Together” around the living room. She cannot resist falling asleep to this. Except that halfway through the song I found myself inconsolably bawling and thinking that in another two or three or four decades I might be dancing with Lilah at her wedding to a song much like this. Hey, Lilah, by the way, if you are looking for a good father-daughter dance song at your wedding, my vote, as of your fifth week of life, is this song. I’ve got it on this thing that we use these days that we call a CD. I’ll explain all the old technology to you some day. I hope it still plays OK over the dried-up tears.

And then I wrote to Ortiz:

Jose—

As you can well testify, I have been quite supportive of your announcement of the discovery of 2003 EL61, and I have tried to make it as clear as possible in all public pronouncements that I regard your discovery as 100% legitimate.

Given this support, I am now extremely disappointed to learn that you have been less than honest about your actions. We have examined the web logs to the SMARTS records and have found that your computers examined those records shortly before your announcement of the discovery.

I regard this as a serious breach of scientific ethics and will make this information public shortly, but I would like to allow you the possibility of responding first. If you would like to in any way explain your actions please let me know within the next day.

Sincerely,

Mike

I went to sleep.

The next day, I checked for a response: nothing. And nothing the next day. And the next. I had said that I was going to make all of this information public in the next day or two, and the time was up. What should I do?

I waited. I couldn’t do the public blindsiding. I realized that I wasn’t looking to crush or humiliate Ortiz. I just wanted him to admit what had happened and to say he was sorry.

I waited. But my patience was not infinite. I wanted my apology. And I needed Ortiz to understand that his breach was serious. After weeks of silence from Ortiz, I wrote to the director of the institute where Ortiz worked:

Dear Dr. del Toro—

I regret to have to inform you about a formal complaint I recently made to the IAU about what is apparently unethical behavior by Jose-Luis Ortiz. As you are no doubt aware, Dr. Ortiz reported the discovery of the bright trans-Neptunian object 2003 EL61 late last month. At the time many in the community questioned whether Ortiz had found out about the object first from perusing our observing logs for the same object. I have repeatedly said that I believed that Ortiz’s discovery was legitimate and that I supported Ortiz et al. as receiving sole credit for the official discovery. I have publicly and privately dismissed the accusations and congratulated Ortiz and his team.

Sadly, I now find that Ortiz has not been honest about his access to our observing logs. We have now examined the records for the web server which show that Ortiz and Santos-Sanz indeed did access our observing logs. The first access came two days before the announcement of the discovery. Our observing logs were accessed multiple times over multiple days. Logs from several different nights were accessed, allowing a complete calculation of the orbits of all of the objects that we were tracking.

I feel it is likely that the explanation that will be proffered by Ortiz will be that the access to our observing records occurred after they had already made the discovery.… This is still a serious breach of scientific ethics. They accessed our observing logs, checked the object we were observing, noted it was the same as theirs, and quickly rushed to announcement with no acknowledgment of having known of our previous observations. I believe that such a behavior is a serious breach of scientific ethics and is deserving of censure.

It seems equally likely to suppose that Ortiz knew nothing of the object until accessing our logs. If this is the case, the behavior amounts to scientific fraud and is deserving of termination.

I have attempted to contact Ortiz for an explanation, but have received no response for almost 3 weeks now. I would have preferred that he have a chance to state his side of the story, but I am unwilling to wait any longer to make the record of his actions public. I intend to publicly post the detailed timeline of his access to our observing logs early next week.

I hope that you feel, as I do, that these allegations of potential fraud at your Institute are extremely serious and should be thoroughly investigated.

Sincerely,
Mike Brown

The director must have quickly realized the seriousness of the charges. He promised to gather information, and he begged that we not hold the actions of Ortiz against his institution as a whole.

In a second e-mail, the director informed us that he had spoken with Ortiz and encouraged him to respond.

Having now had most of the month to think about all of the implications of what had happened, I wrote a much more detailed e-mail to Ortiz and Santos-Sanz, with a full accounting of everything we knew. It was hard for me to imagine that there was any way out for them but to confess and apologize.

I waited.

After nearly a month, I opened my e-mail one day to find a message from Ortiz. What would his response be? Would he angrily deny his actions? Would he gush gratefully for having been given the chance to redeem himself after such a mistake? Would he try to negotiate some solution favorable to himself? I was eager—and nervous—to see what his response was going to be; it was likely to thoroughly define whatever course the future was going to take.

Ortiz came out swinging: I was to blame for all of this, and indeed, I was universally regarded as a menace to science itself, so I should be the last one to discuss ethics. Instead, I should apologize to the international scientific community and quit my secretive ways. If I reformed, Ortiz was even willing to give me credit for the discovery of 2003 EL61. He would be happy simply to be noted as the person who first reported the discovery. I should think it over, and we should talk again at the end of the month.

It seemed to me that in Ortiz’s view he had not stolen K40506A; he had liberated it. I had been hiding it all along, in clear violation of what he considered accepted rules of science. Thus Ortiz should be commended rather than condemned for taking the information and setting it free.

In some ways that he didn’t quite know, Ortiz was right. I had been hiding information. I had detailed records of exactly what Ortiz had done, and I had delayed telling anyone for a month, in the hope that an amicable solution could be found. That hope was now clearly dashed. I posted the records of Ortiz’s access to our database on the Web. The next day, a long story about allegations and counterallegations appeared on the front page of the science section of The New York Times. Stories about the allegations showed up in all of the major scientific newsmagazines. And on the day that the story broke, José-Luis Ortiz was named Worst Person in the World by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, beating out a Sri Lankan Airlines flight attendant who had called in a bomb threat so she could have the day off.

In some ways, though, Ortiz’s argument almost sounded reasonable. We had been keeping our discoveries secret. That must be bad, right?

Until then I had simply ignored the protestations of the Internet chat group that accused us of malicious behavior, assuming that responding would simply give credence to the allegations; but as always, the Swift-boating had worked. I even started getting e-mails from real scientists asking me why we were hiding things.

I finally had to respond. I stayed up late that night and wrote a long post on my website, which ended up being reproduced around the world. I acknowledged the accusations that we hide discoveries and harm science, and then I wrote:

One of the things that is so strange about these allegations is that they should also be made of every single scientific result that is published in every single reputable scientific journal. In all such cases, scientists make discoveries, they verify their discoveries, they carefully document their discoveries, and they submit papers to scientific journals. What they don’t do is make discoveries and immediately hold press conferences to announce them (any scientist who ever contemplates such a thing can be stopped cold in his tracks by simply whispering the phrase “cold fusion”). Good science is a careful and deliberate process. The time from discovery to announcement in a scientific paper can be a couple of years. For all of our previous discoveries, we had described the objects in scientific papers before publicly announcing the objects’ existence, and the time between discovery and announcement was always less than nine months.

These scientific papers are important. They allow other astronomers to verify, confirm, and critique the analysis we have done. Sadly, because we were forced to announce Xena and Easterbunny prematurely, we hadn’t completed the scientific papers describing these objects. We find this situation scientifically embarrassing and apologize to our colleagues who are reduced to learning about this new object from reading reports in the press. We are hard at work on these scientific papers, but, as we have said above, good science is a careful and deliberate process and we are not yet through with our analysis. Our intent in all cases is to go from discovery to announcement in under nine months. We think that is a pretty fast pace.

One could object to the above by noting that the existence of these objects is never in doubt, so why not just announce the existence immediately upon discovery and continue observing to learn more? This way, other astronomers could also study the new object. There are two reasons we don’t do this. First, we have dedicated a substantial part of our careers to this survey precisely so that we can discover and have the first crack at studying the large objects in the outer solar system. The discovery itself contains little of scientific interest. Almost all of the science that we are interested in doing comes from studying the object in detail after discovery. Announcing the existence of the objects and letting other astronomers get the first detailed observations of these objects would ruin the entire scientific point of spending so much effort on our survey. Some have argued that doing things this way “harms science” by not letting others make observations of the objects that we find. It is difficult to understand how a nine-month delay in studying an object that no one would even know existed otherwise is in any way harmful to science!

Many other types of astronomical surveys are done for precisely the same reasons. Astronomers survey the skies looking for ever more distant galaxies. When they find one, they study it and write a scientific paper. When that paper comes out, other astronomers learn of the distant galaxy and they too can study it. Other astronomers cull large databases such as the 2MASS infrared survey to find rare objects like brown dwarves. When they find them, they study them and write a scientific paper. When the paper comes out, other astronomers learn of the brown dwarves and they study them in perhaps different ways. Still other astronomers look around nearby stars for the elusive signs of directly detectable extrasolar planets. When they find one, they study it and write a scientific paper. This is the way that the entire field of astronomy—and indeed all of science—works. It’s a very effective system; people who put in the tremendous effort to find these rare objects are rewarded with getting to be the first to study them scientifically. Astronomers who are unwilling or unable to put in the effort to search for the objects still get to study them after a small delay.

There is a second reason that we don’t announce objects immediately, and that is because we feel a responsibility not just to our scientific colleagues but to the public. We know that these large objects that keep being found are likely to be intensely interesting to the public, and we would like to have the story as complete as possible before making an announcement. Consider, for example, the instantaneous Ortiz et al. announcement of the existence of 2003 EL61. Headlines in places like the BBC web site breathlessly exclaimed, “new object may be twice the size of Pluto.” But even at the time we knew that 2003 EL61 had a satellite and was only 30% the mass of Pluto. We quickly got the truth out, but just barely. Sadly, other interesting aspects of 2003 EL61 also got lost in the shuffle. No one got to hear that it rotates every 4 hours, faster than anything else known in the Kuiper belt. Or how that fast rotation causes it to be shaped like a cigar. Or how we use the existence of the satellite to calculate the mass. All of these are interesting things that would have let the public learn a bit more about the mysteries of physics and of the solar system. In the press you get one chance to tell the story. In the case of the instantaneous announcement of 2003 EL61 the story was simply “there is a big object out there.” We are saddened by the lost opportunity to tell a richer scientific story and to have the public listen for just one day to a tale that included a bit of astronomy, a bit of physics, and a bit of detective story.

Given that we do precisely what other astronomers do and that we are actually very prompt about making announcements, where did the crazy idea that we should be announcing objects instantly come from? Interestingly, there is one area of astronomy in which instantaneous announcement is both expected and beneficial to all. In the study of rare, quickly changing objects, such as supernovae, gamma ray bursts, comets, and near-earth asteroids, astronomers quickly disseminate their results so that as many people as possible can study the phenomenon before it disappears or changes completely. No one discovers a comet and keeps the discovery to himself to study, because by the time the study would be done the comet would be gone and no one else could study it ever again. The people initially suggesting that we were wrong not to announce our objects instantly are, for the most part, a small group of amateur astronomers who are familiar with comet and near-earth asteroid observation protocols. We can only assume that this familiarity led them to their misconceptions. Kuiper belt objects are not quickly changing phenomena. Astronomers will be intensively studying Xena for a long time to come.

We hope to discover a few more large objects in the outer solar system. When we do, we will do everything we can to learn as much as possible about them before we make their existence public, and we will try to make the announcement as complete and scientifically and publicly interesting as possible. We will take the chance—as all scientists do—that by taking the time to do the scientific job correctly someone else may beat us to the announcement, and if they do we will congratulate them heartily.

The chat group went crazy at this point, but I never read it again, and forbade anyone from relaying stories to me. For most of the next year, Ortiz was not seen or heard from at any of the various scientific conferences around the globe. I assumed—incorrectly—that we would never hear from or about him again.

In the years that have followed, I have occasionally wondered what really happened. I will never know. In his few public pronouncements, Ortiz has claimed the only thing that he could: that he legitimately discovered K40506A/2003 EL61/Santa/Haumea one day before he stumbled upon our website, and when he had announced his discovery, there was no good mechanism for mentioning that his team had accessed our database. It was a simple oversight. What if that story is true? What if I put these guys through hell over a discovery that was legitimate? How will I ever get rid of that nagging feeling that maybe they were hardworking underdogs who had made the discovery of their lives?

But but but. But if they were on the up and up, why would they hide the fact that they had accessed the data? Why wouldn’t they mention it in the early days, when Ortiz and I were exchanging cordial e-mails? Sure, there was no official channel for mentioning that they had known about our database, but given that I opened a friendly back channel the day after Ortiz’s announcement, might he not have mentioned it to me then?

I went back and checked the e-mails recently. It is true that Ortiz never publicly denied having used the data, even in the early days. He just never answered the question. All of the denial came from his German friend, who, I still believe, had been equally duped. I wonder if he secretly suspected that something was amiss or if he was simply as trusting and naïve as I used to be.