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


On Thursday, July 7, 2005, I decided to do something that I almost never did—stay home to get work done without the distractions of the people who kept stopping by my office to check on plans for Santa or Easterbunny or Xena, or to chat about nothing in particular. I had about one more day of work to go before I was finished with the first scientific paper about Santa. According to my calculations, Petunia was due within the next few weeks, so I wanted to get the paper out in the next day or two, just to be safe.

Rumors were already starting to circulate within the astronomical community that we were onto something big, and publishing the announcement about Santa quietly seemed like a safe way to deflect attention from the real big announcement that was soon to come.

The Thursday that I stayed home, Diane was at work in what was to be Petunia’s room, putting some last touches on the decorations and furnishings, but I noticed little, since I was deep into the analysis and the explanations in my head. Still, at some point I noticed an unusual groan/sigh from the other room.

“What was that?” I called out to Diane.

“I’m just having a little cramping today. The doctor said I was supposed to expect something like this,” said the ever-cool Diane.

“Are you sure? I’ve never heard you make sounds like that before.”

“Nah. Just what the doctor warned.”

I suggested that, for fun, we do a labor dress rehearsal. I would write down when Diane had little cramps and time them just as we would the real thing.

“Fine,” Diane said, humoring my usual need to assign concrete numbers to everything going on around me.

I went back to work, a little more distracted now.

Fourteen minutes later, I heard the sound again. I remembered my birthing classes. Fourteen minutes was a pretty long interval. There was nothing to worry about. I was not even supposed to really begin timing things until the contractions were less than ten minutes apart. Even then, if contractions are more than five minutes apart you probably have many hours to go. The best thing to do is go on with whatever you should be doing instead. Like finishing a paper.

Diane nonchalantly replied, “Well, you missed the one in between.”

What? That would make the contractions six minutes apart. And six minutes later, there was another.

“Umm, Diane? Could this be for real?”

Diane didn’t think so but suggested that we pack our bags just in case if it would make me happy.

By the fourth contraction, I decided that I needed to be keeping track down to the second and I also needed to count the length of each contraction. Five minutes and twenty seconds, lasting fifty-one seconds. I started writing down the strength: stronger, really mild, strong, supermild.

We spent a few hours trying to decide if Diane was in labor or if this was just a false alarm. I plotted some graphs. The contractions came a little closer together, just as they were supposed to. And then they didn’t. I trusted the expert opinion. We weren’t supposed to do anything until they came four minutes apart, lasted a full minute, and did that consistently for an hour. But they never hit that magical four-minute interval. And they only occasionally lasted a full minute. And sometimes they were hardly there at all. The last contraction that I recorded that morning occurred at 11:14:40, four minutes and fifty seconds after the previous one. It lasted fifty seconds and was medium strong. Things were really going nowhere. And then Diane’s water broke, perhaps changing astronomical history.

We were as calm as parents-to-be in labor could be, even stopping at my favorite coffee spot on the way (it was on the way, really; our birthing teacher had even recommended doing so!), since I knew it would be a long night for me. In the end, I didn’t need the coffee, since there would be no all-night exhausting labor. Petunia had fooled us all by deciding to try to emerge foot first, and when the doctors realized this, they quickly whisked her out at the point of a knife.

“It’s a boy!” the doctor assisting our primary doctor said.

A boy? How could we have gotten that wrong? I suddenly started thinking through everything that would be different.

“Girl, I mean.” The umbilical cord had been strategically placed to cause initial confusion.

The three of us slept in the little hospital room that night, and in the still, slightly dark early morning, as Diane got some rest, I took the little swaddled bundle with me out into the hallway and stood in front of a full-length window looking east. It was less than three weeks past summer solstice, and the sun was making an early rise into an orange sky.

“Welcome to the world,” I told Petunia. “The sun rises just like this every morning. It’ll do it tens of thousands of times for you.”

She opened her eyes and made a peeping squawk. Time for food, and I was of no use.

Petunia needed a real name. Diane used to joke, to anyone who would listen, that I’d get no say in her naming.

“Do you think I want her named Quaoar?” she would say.

We had tried to agree on a name a few months earlier. We had each made a list. Diane had crossed off all of the names on my list, and I had crossed off all of the names on hers. By the day after Petunia’s birth, we still had no name. The nurses wanted a name for the birth certificate. In a sneaky move, Diane pulled a name from her list. For some reason, it seemed new and fresh. It means “night” in Arabic. And I didn’t know anyone with that name. So Petunia became Lilah. And I can’t imagine my world without a Lilah in it.

Those early weeks were a blur. Like most new parents, I slept no more than two or three hours at the longest. How tired was I? One morning I piled a load of laundry into the washing machine, scooped a plastic cup of laundry detergent from the box, and poured it into the receptacle in the washing machine. The detergent filled the receptacle and then spilled over the edges. This had never happened before. I had never scooped out more detergent than could fit into the receptacle. I thought hard. I stared at the detergent. I stared at the object in my hand. It was not the small detergent scoop, but a big plastic cup. Why would there be a big plastic cup in the detergent box? I read the side of the detergent box, then it became clear that this was not detergent but kitty litter. I had just loaded the washing machine full of kitty litter. I pondered what would happen if I started the washing machine with the kitty litter inside—the clumping kind!—and then spent the next thirty minutes trying desperately to get every last bit of litter out of the machine. Then I went to get some sleep; I could do laundry later.

Lilah did little more than sleep and eat and cry, which to me was the most fascinating thing in the entire universe. Why did she cry? When did she sleep? What made her eat a lot one day and little the next? Was she changing with time? I did what any obsessed person would do in such a case: I recorded data, plotted it, and calculated statistical correlations. First I just wrote on scraps of paper and made charts on graph paper, but I very quickly became more sophisticated. I wrote computer software to make a beautifully colored plot showing times when Diane fed Lilah, in black; when I fed her, in blue (expressed mother’s milk, if you must know); Lilah’s fussy times, in angry red; her happy times, in green. I calculated patterns in sleeping times, eating times, crying times, length of sleep, amounts eaten.

Then, I did what any obsessed parent would do these days: I put it all on the Web. It’s still there, at least until Lilah gets old enough to find it and is sufficiently mortified that she makes me take it down ( I wrote thoughts about Lilah’s sleeping and eating progress daily. Lilah developed an international following of people who, for whatever reason, were fascinated to know when a random infant would sleep and eat and what her father would say about it. If I ever missed posting data for a day, I was sure to hear about it from Lilah’s fans.

In the years since, I have gotten occasional comments from parents-to-be or recent parents who stumble on Lilah’s page. My favorite was from a first-time father in England who said that he kept the plot of Lilah’s eating and sleeping posted on his refrigerator at home for the first six months of his daughter’s life. He said it was vital to his sanity in those first few sleepless weeks to look up and see that, indeed, someday his daughter really would sleep more than two hours a time at night. My second favorite was from a friend who informed me after the birth of his daughter that reading Lilah’s page was the worst thing he had ever done. His daughter was so much better than mine in every way that he had terrified himself for no reason. He had no statistical evidence to back up his assertion, so I, of course, didn’t believe him one bit.

Today, when I go back and look at my comments and at the eating and sleeping records that I posted from July until the following March, when I finally ran out of steam, I can almost pull myself back into the moment. But mostly, I look at those early months and think: Really? Diane and I really woke up to feed Lilah three or four times a night for weeks on end? And feeding Lilah really took forty-five minutes? Twelve times per day? How did we have time for anything else? I think the answer is: We didn’t.

With all of the plotting and charting, I thought I could do a better job of understanding things. And, of course, with understanding comes control. And if there was anything that I wanted to have some understanding and perhaps control over, it was Lilah’s sleeping. Looking through Lilah’s first six months, though, is a reminder that my understanding was minimal and my control was nil. But it didn’t keep me from trying, plotting, calculating, predicting, and being continually proven wrong. Nothing could have been better.

Case in point, from my posting on the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth days of Lilah’s life, revealing almost all of my obsessions in only two paragraphs (which was all I could muster over two days, owing to sleep deprivation and lack of brain functionality):

Day 34 (10 Aug 2005): Lilah is my hero! She had her first more-than-5-hours-between-feeds day ever last night. We fed her at 9:50 PM and she didn’t wake up until 3:10 AM, when I got up to give her a bottle, at which point she stayed asleep until 6:15. OK, so here’s the math: Diane could have slept from about 10:30 PM, when she finished feeding Lilah, until about 6:05 AM when she started getting up to feed Lilah. That is more than 7½ hours in a row! The reality is not quite as good, of course, as Diane seems to wake up whenever I get up to feed Lilah and when I come back and when the cats jump on the bed and when Lilah makes funny sounds. But let’s forget these sordid details momentarily. This is probably the longest Diane stayed in bed at night in months, given that since about June, Lilah was pressing on her bladder and making her get up every several hours all night long. Fabulous! Way to go Lilah.

Day 35 (11 Aug 2005): I guess the job of heroes is to disappoint their admirers. Pretty mediocre night last night, including a pretty short sleep after I gave her a bottle, which leads me to question: does she sleep better when Diane feeds her than when I give her a bottle? I have always thought so, but the data do not support my suspicion. If you examine all non-bottle feeds between 1 am and 4 am the average interval between feeds is 2 hours 39 minutes. If you examine the same bottle feeds you find an average of 2 hours 28 minutes between feeds. Hmmm. Eleven whole minutes. And a Student’s T-Test shows that this difference is not even statistically significant. So I guess I should be happy about that. Me and a bottle are almost as good as the real thing.

Besides Lilah’s sleeping, my other main obsession was her eating. Early on, I had taken over one of the nighttime feeding shifts, in an attempt to allow Diane to reclaim a small degree of normality. I used milk that Diane had diligently—if uncomfortably—expressed. I was in charge of milk stockpiling. Diane would hand me a bottle with a bit of milk in the bottom. If I thought we were going to need it soon, I would leave it fresh in the refrigerator, but in times of plenty, I could invest a bit in the future and put it in the freezer. Milksicles, we called them.

Over the first two months, as the milksicle bank began to grow, Lilah and I ventured farther and farther away from Diane. We went on hikes where I carried a tiny cooler full of ice packs and frozen milk, and I would calculate just when I needed to take out a container to thaw it so it would be ready precisely when Lilah would be hungry. I would pay dearly for any mistakes. Milk not ready yet when Lilah was hungry? Lilah: Waaaaaaaaaa. Brought too little, and she was still hungry? Lilah: Waaaaaaaa. Brought too much, and some thawed and went to waste? Me: Waaaaaaaa.

I invented—in my head—myriads of new devices specifically designed to help parents acquire, manage, and efficiently use their frozen milk supplies. One day I even started to create a supply database to record the comings and goings from the refrigerator and the freezer. Diane made me stop. “You’re nuts,” she said. “Don’t you have better things to do?” I did. I really did. But I kept charting, graphing, and posting, nonetheless.

My last post was on March 4, 2006—day 240 of Lilah’s life. By March I finally was back to work full-time and Lilah was spending her days with a nanny and another girl exactly her age, who to this day remains her inseparable best friend. I was just coming back from a trip to the East Coast, where I had spoken about planets, new and old. But all I could think of at the time was what Lilah might be doing:

I’ve missed Lilah for the past few days. I’m on my way home from one of the longest trips since her birth. What’s she going to be like when I get home? Actually standing? Able to wave bye-bye (we’re working on that one now)? Finally relaxing now that mom and dad are more relaxed? Is that first bad case of diaper rash all resolved (we don’t really need to talk about that, now, do we?). Can’t wait. Can’t wait. Can’t wait.

And then that’s all. I’m sure I didn’t intend to stop forever that day. I’m sure I just got busy and skipped one day. Then two. Then a week. And then it was over. I’m sad now because as the memories have faded I can no longer go back and relive all of those moments of that time of Lilah’s life. If I could, I would. I would do it all over.