The Millennial Astrophysicist Who Found a Planet With Math
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you’re going to have to relearn the list of planets in our solar system … again.
By James Watkins and Sean Culligan
Konstantin Batygin made the decision of which college to attend with the intention of keeping his band together. (When a guy at Costco recognized him from a rock show, he thought, “With this kind of momentum, we can’t quit!”) Day one at UC Santa Cruz, an unknown “drifter” told him, “You should do astrophysics — that shit is dope.” He did so. Today, his office has thug-life posters on the door and big-kid toy planes on the shelves. He wears a shark-tooth necklace, and he uses the word hashtag out loud. Oh, and this millennial just turned the astrophysics universe upside-down when he predicted the existence of a new planet in our solar system.
After researching the movements of distant objects in the band of space trash just outside Neptune called the Kuiper belt (where former planet Pluto is among the largest of the lumps of rock and ice), Caltech astronomer Mike Brown noticed that their lopsided orbits curiously all point in the same direction. He immediately took the puzzle four doors down the hallway, to his former student turned colleague, the then-28-year-old Batygin. With Brown’s expertise analyzing astronomical data, Batygin’s creativity with astrophysical theory and the help of Caltech’s $2-million supercomputer, the pair took two years to settle the issue. They published their findings this year, with as close as you can get to proof of a never-before-seen planet.
No one’s spotted the planet yet, but Batygin and Brown’s findings have set about eight other teams around the world scouring the night sky, racing to confirm the existence of the glamorously named Planet Nine. They know that it’s somewhere in a section of the Orion constellation, but because it is so far out (at its furthest, 40 times further out than Neptune), it is very, very faint.
Nobody has discovered a planet in our solar system for 170 years. When Neptune was discovered in 1846, verifying the predictions of Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier, it was “one of the most glorious confirmations of theoretical work becoming reality” in scientific history, says Batygin. Now he is trying to do the very same thing. But don’t think he just jumped to conclusions to earn a place in the history books: “We purposefully did not touch the idea of a planet [at first] because the people that scream ‘Planet! Planet! Planet!’ are always wrong,” Batygin says. Indeed, they exhaustively ruled out every other realistic explanation for the wonky Kuiper belt orbits, from a stellar flyby to a sci-fi-sounding galactic tide, before settling on Planet Nine. You know a theory looks good when it explains and predicts phenomena that had seemed unrelated to the initial puzzle (just ask Einstein). Sure enough, Batygin and Brown’s Planet Nine model predicted, with pinpoint accuracy, the locations of several other previously unidentified Kuiper belt objects, and it even explains the enduring astronomical mystery that the sun is tilted relative to the rest of the Solar System.
The drama of it “hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Batygin says. He gets too caught up in the mathematical minutiae of his day job — along with his side passion for rock ’n’ roll — to digest the enormity of it all. (He is vocalist and lead singer for his own band, The Seventh Season, composed entirely of Caltech scientists; they’ve put out three albums.)
One of the greatest things about rock ’n’ roll is it’s a way to not care about the rules. That’s important in science too — you have to not give a shit about what somebody said 50 years ago.
— Konstantin Batygin
The Russia-born, Japan-raised Californian is upsetting astronomical apple carts even beyond his search for Planet Nine: UCLA astrophysicist Jean-Luc Margot calls him “a creative dynamist” who applies his intuitive understanding of the movement of objects in space to many different fields. “I don’t think there’s anybody like him who’s done so many innovative things in so many different ways at age 30,” says Brown. He has rewritten decades-old planet-formation textbooks after proving that Jupiter-size planets can form close to stars, and he’s shown that the solar system is inherently unstable, settling a problem stretching back to Newton. “I have to warn him now and then that doing so many things, some people are just gonna get irritated at your existence,” jokes Brown.
For now, though, Planet Nine’s existence looks merely “promising,” Margot notes; it remains “hypothesis on the basis of indirect evidence.” If and when it is found, the new planet is unlikely to bear Batygin and Brown’s names for glorious posterity. “We would have to invent a new procedure” for such an exceptional event, says Piero Benvenuti, general secretary of the International Astronomical Union, which would have the final say. He suggests that public opinion could be considered, so we can all look forward to a planet named Harambe, or perhaps Planet McPlanetface.
— Konstantin Batygin (@kbatygin) October 20, 2016
In the meantime, “I love” the name Planet Nine, says Batygin, scribbling some math on his office chalkboard. “It’s descriptive!” At six-foot-three (he’s been this height since he was a kid — he was made to skip second grade because he was too tall), he writes his equations on the top half of the board, while the bottom is reserved for slightly misshapen drawings of flowers by his 4-year-old daughter. “You don’t want your kids growing up thinking you’re super lame, that you used to be cool and used to play in a band,” he says. It seems the music’s still more important to him than the fact he’s on the verge of the scientific discovery of the century.