LFHST - Buie Journal - 1996 Feb 23

Talking about Pluto at New Mexico State University

While all this work was going on to finalize the Pluto maps, I had to take a trip to New Mexico State University. In early January, I was invited to come to the NMSU Astronomy Department to give a talk to their faculty and students about my research on Pluto. I thought that this would be an ideal opportunity to present the new maps of Pluto and surely I would be finished by then. At least I wouldn't have to worry about working on two things at once (Pluto maps and my presentation) since working on one would be working on the other.

Well, my strategy worked pretty well except for one minor problem, I hadn't really finished the maps. Oh, it was pretty close to being done, and up until about 2 hours before my talk I thought it WAS done. But, as I mentioned in my previous journal entry, as a scientist I must always think about and question my results. Alan Stern and I were talking on the phone just before I was to give my talk. We were arguing about problems we'd seen in the maps because STScI was chasing after us to get final figures submitted for the upcoming press release (that's today as I write this). Alan had seen some things in the pictures I had last sent to STScI and he was already insisting that the pictures be redone. As we were arguing (in a nice way, really) about what to do, I had one of those sinking realizations of a mistake I had made in creating the maps. Simply put, if you rotate the Pluto image before extracting the map, you must also rotate the PSF by the same amount. If you don't, the answer is wrong. I knew in that instant that this was an error that couldn't be ignored and that all the work had to be redone. That's right, another 2 days of computer time but I still had a talk to give in just 2 hours.

The astute readers among you may have already recognized the name of the university where I was giving my talk. This is the present day home of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. Clyde normally attends the colloquia at the university but he was certainly making a special effort to come hear a talk about Pluto. Wouldn't you?

I was a little disappointed in having discovered another problem with the new map but that's just part of the scientific process of discovery. I have found it very rare to face a new result or discovery as if crossing through a door of understanding. It never happens that you suddenly know the answer.

Let me try to explain what really happens with a different analogy. Imagine, if you will, a field somewhere in the forest. I'd use the more traditional word, meadow, except it sounds too small. So, a field in forest. The forest stands for the entire field of study within Planetary Science. I spent all that time in school learning how to find and understand the trails within the forest. Now I'm out on my own trying to blaze new trails. These trails are paths of what we know and understand and lead to a variety of different meadows and fields in this great forest. Every once in a long while, you might discover something while wandering the trails but usually you don't get anywhere new until you break from the trail and head off into a new direction. That's what it's like to tackle a new project. You simply step off into the unknown and start thrashing around. Pretty soon, if you're lucky, you will come upon a field, a break in the trees. As you make you're way into the field you realize that something new and wonderful lies before you.

Do you think you're done now? No, not at all. At this point, you know you're onto something wonderful. You can tell from the color that there are some truly amazing flowers to be found here in the field and you now have the job of finding the best one! Finding that best flower is equivalent to having found the absolute best answer that explains your new discovery. Now imagine what's it's like to search for that best flower. First, you just wander around until you find your first flower, sometimes this first one is right there in front of you, sometimes not. Is this the best one? Well, it's always possible that the first flower (idea?) is the right one but usually not. But you'll take a careful look just the same and begin learning about these flowers. Of course, you need to look at more than just one to know what makes a good flower and a bad flower. That takes more examinations, flower by flower. Along the way you will learn something about how big a difference there is between good flowers and bad flowers. The longer you work on this problem, the more and more subtle the differences you begin to look for in search of the one perfect flower. The only truly fail-safe way to know you've found the perfect flower is to look at every flower in the field. If you indulge this concept this field might take the rest of your life (or more). Many times, it's the best we can to to just indicate areas within the field that one finds the better flowers. Even that much work is often enough to warrant telling everyone else of what you've found. In the meantime, you might continue looking for a better flower (answer?) while others are looking too.

That's a long-winded explanation of what it means to do research. Every day you try to learn more or come up with a better answer and many times you do. Each time you do, you get a little thrill out of seeing an answer that makes just a little bit more sense. After a while you stop getting better answers but you never quite know that there isn't one just a little better waiting to be found. Each new answer gets you closer to true understanding but you rearely recognize it when the instant of true understanding arrives. Instead, it's after much time has past and no one (including yourself) has found a better answer that you begin to realize that perhaps you had found the best answer.

Anyway, here it was just before my talk, in front of Pluto's discoverer, and I'd just learned that I didn't know as much as I thought I knew. I didn't let it bother me though. This happens all the time in research and as long as you let everyone know where the limits of your understanding are, you've still done a good job.

I always enjoy talking about Pluto, particularly when I get a chance to let people in on what I've learned. This particular talk was a once-in-a-lifetime treat that few ever get to experience. Here I was, talking about my favorite planet, in front of the man who found Pluto in the first place. Not only that, but I had an opportunity to thank him in person. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to thank the person responsible for what has become my life's work. Not many people are this fortunate.

Oh, the talk went well and no one fussed that I didn't quite have the final answer. I was a little disappointed when there weren't many questions afterward. I always feel like I've failed when there are no questions. There is no such thing as complete knowledge and I love to excite the curiosity of an audience.

The saving grace for the afternoon was the presentation for Clyde Tombaugh after my talk. Reta Beebe brought in a bunch of elementary school kids to act as representatives for many of you participating in the LFHST program. There were boxes and boxes of cards, a couple of hand painted t-shirts and a video with some kids singing happy birthday to Clyde (he turned 90 just a couple of weeks earlier). What I didn't know was that Reta would troop the kids in and sit them down to see my new Pluto maps. Reta asked me to show my video tape of the maps and I was only too happy to oblige.

I showed my new maps, explaining what we were seeing (you'll see them soon too). Then, to my surprise, I was flooded with questions! Why can't we see craters? What's the surface made of? I can't remember them all, there were so many. I concluded with telling them about the mission to Pluto that NASA has been studying that could begin to answer all these questions in full detail. I think we all got caught up in the excitement and promise such a mission provides for the future. Let's hope that somehow we can all find a way to get there together.

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Marc W. Buie, Southwest Research Institute