Brian Marsden, long time director of the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center died today. While it is easy to say “he was the nicest guy…” in this case it was simply true. Everyone who came across him has stories about Brian. My book, coming out in out a few more weeks has a few too. Just last week I autographed a copy for Brian and bookmarked the spots where he appeared. I say nice things about him, which made me nervous to send him the copy. I was always a little worried about exactly how he would react to praise.But I really wanted him to see it to make sure he knew how much I appreciated everything he had done for me, for astronomy, and for the solar system.
I didn’t send the book in time, though, so he’ll never get it, which makes me sad, but I’m mostly sad that I won’t ever have the chance again to send an email to the Minor Planet Center with precise coordinates of something that I just found and get a quick phone call back in which I hear his voice, super excited, saying WOW. Sometimes astronomers – probably all scientists – have reservations about discoveries made by their colleagues. Brian never did. The solar system was, to him, an exciting place that could only be better by someone – anyone – finding things that were thoroughly unexpected.
I admit that in the week before the announcement, even I worried a bit about breaking the rules. I am, by nature, a rule follower. But I really wanted “Dutch” to be “Sedna” in time for the announcement. I thought it mattered – and, it turned out, based on those crayon drawings [of Sedna that children made], it did. Finally I decided I would buck the rules, though politely. I called Brian Marsden, an astronomer at Harvard University who was, in my opinion, the gate keeper of the solar system. He was the person to whom you sent the very first announcements of discoveries. He checked that your calculations were right. He put it on the official list. And he was always the first to be amazed and say, “WOW! What a great discovery.” Brian was also the secretary of the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature. I told him what I was planning to do. He asked if he could tell the chair of the committee. Of course, I said. Everyone agreed that a name was a good thing and Sedna was a good name.
To the [Yahoo] chat group full of [astronomical] enthusiasts, though, I was a rule-breaker in need of punishment. One particularly agitated enthusiast tried very hard to prevent me from officially naming Sedna “Sedna”. Before Sedna was quite eligible for an official name, he proposed, through the official channels, that an unremarkable, hitherto anonymous asteroid – which was nonetheless eligible for a name – be named “Sedna,” after the Inuit goddess of the sea. Only one thing in the solar system can have the name, so my Sedna would have had to get a different name.
“Rejected,” declared Brian Marsden. Names of important mythological figures would only be used for important astronomical objects.
The enthusiast next proposed to name the very same unremarkable asteroid after Kathy Sedna, a Canadian singer.
In a bit more than 300 words, the best of Brian Marsden is instantly clear: he was excited about the solar system, he was unwilling to give in to unreasonableness, and he always, whenever possible, made sure the right thing happened, if he had any control over it. My favorite quote about Brian was one I heard him say often over the past few years. He stepped down from the directorship of the Minor Planet Center on the same day that Pluto was demoted to a minor planet (something that Brian had argued eloquently for for years). According to a thorough and moving remembrance from the Minor Planet Circular’s themselves:
It was also at the IAU meeting in Prague that Dr. Marsden stepped down as MPC director, and he was quite entertained by the thought that both he and Pluto had been retired on the same day.