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


It takes some time for a kid to figure out that her parents have a separate existence that takes place when she’s not around. By the time she was about three, whenever I was gone for a few days Lilah began getting immensely curious about where I was. That place would become a fabled land that she invoked when playing with stuffed animals or making up stories. Taiwan, to which I went one week during her third year and which she can now pick out on any globe, remains perhaps her favorite spot in the world. At one point during her third summer, she had named all of the corners of the swimming pool after different places, and she would cling to my back and direct me where to go next.

“Daddy, I want to go to Chicago.”

Swim, swim, swim.

“Daddy, Daddy, Berlin!”

Stroke, stroke, stroke.


Glide, glide, glide.

“Daddy, Daddy, I want to go all the way to Taiwan!”

Taiwan, which she knew to be an island, required momentarily going underwater before emerging on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

“Now back to Pasadena, California!” which was code for “Let’s get out and see if Mommy will bring out some snacks.”

Eventually she started figuring out why I would periodically disappear.

“Are you going to go talk about planets?”

And the answer, invariably, was yes.

Lilah loves planets. Other than the occasional dwarf-dog joke, I have never particularly pushed planets on her, at least not any harder than I push them on everyone else. Yes, I point out planets in the sky to her every time we go outside at night, but I do that to everyone. Beginning in that summer of her third birthday, Lilah had been particularly mesmerized by Jupiter. Every night for a few months, it was high in the evening sky—one of the first things to pop out of the murky twilight and reveal itself night after night. Back in the summer, she made sure we went outside right at her bedtime, when it was just barely dark enough to make out Jupiter, so she could say good night to it. As the summer changed to fall and then winter, it would already be dark as we were driving home, and for her, the highlight of the drive was always the moment after we’d climbed the little hill to our neighborhood and we had taken the final left-hand turn to point west; Jupiter suddenly would appear in her window, high enough in the sky to be seen even from the depths of her child car seat.

By late fall, though, Jupiter was no longer the king of the evening skies. Venus had crept up into the twilight to start to steal the show from Jupiter. Or at least, in Lilah’s view, to share the show. She went from having only one planet to now having two planets to say good night to every night.

Lilah sees planets everywhere. You never quite realize—until you have an obsessed three-year-old—how prevalent images of planets are in everyday life. She’s got them on her lunch box (a gift from friends of mine, of course); she sees pictures in magazines and catalogs; she sees mobiles and puzzles at stores. I would tend to just walk by them without noticing, but she always runs up—“Daddy, Daddy, look!” She always quickly picks out Jupiter (the big one) and, of course, Saturn, with the rings. She recognizes the blue-and-green look of Earth. And she gets Venus right more often than I think any three-year-old should.

One night, after a long cloudy spell when we couldn’t see the planets at night, Lilah looked up at the sky, startled. “Daddy, Daddy, look! Jupiter moved!” And she was right. Venus and Jupiter had been slowly edging closer to each other over the past few weeks, but you wouldn’t have noticed it unless you were watching closely. Now they were suddenly so close that even a three-year-old could see that something had changed.

Lilah’s pointing out to me that Jupiter moved was—for me—the pinnacle of planetary charm. While most kids and adults can name the planets and point out pictures, almost nobody notices the real things, even when they are blazing in the evening sky. Planets are not just things that spacecraft visit and beam back pictures from. They’re not just abstractions to put on lunch boxes. They are really there, night after night after night, doing what planets do: moving; wandering.

A few nights later, the show got even better. A tiny sliver of a moon appeared low in the early-evening sky and began working its way toward Jupiter and Venus. Lilah and I are moon watchers. And we both know that after appearing as a tiny sliver at sunset, the moon gets bigger and moves east night after night in the evening sky. Based on how far the moon was from Venus and Jupiter, it was clear that in just two nights the moon would be packed tight right next to Jupiter and Venus. It would be a spectacular sight, with the three brightest objects ever visible in the night sky in an unmistakable grouping in the southwest just after sunset.

The night of the triple conjunction, I was on a long flight across the country. As I was packing my bags that morning, Lilah had sadly asked, “Daddy, are you going away to go talk about planets?”

I was. But I didn’t want talking about planets to make me miss seeing planets. I knew I was touching down at night in Florida long after Jupiter and Venus and the moon would have set, but I was careful to pick a window seat on the south side of the airplane so I could watch the show from the air. And the sight of the moon and Jupiter and Venus shining in a tight triangle over and behind the wing was as spectacular as Lilah and I knew that it would be. Though it was night in Florida, it would still be a beautiful late twilight in California. I quickly called home and told Lilah all about the view from 30,000 feet and told her to go outside right now and—look! She would see all of our favorite planets.

The tight-packed group of lights low in the early evening sky was the sort of sight that makes even non–night sky watchers suddenly look up and wonder. A few people would even think to look the next night, I suspected, to see if the sight was still there. They would notice that the moon had already moved farther east and gotten a little bigger, and they would see that the two other bright lights—Jupiter and Venus—were in slightly different spots than just one night earlier. Maybe then a person or two would be hooked. Maybe they would follow the moon’s movement for the next week as it grew to full, watching as Jupiter appeared lower night after night, eventually leaving Venus alone in the sky. It would be a show worth following. I knew Lilah and I would watch it. Even when we were continents apart, we’d always be looking for the things that moved in the sky.