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Space heist (or, how to steal a planet)

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Artist's impression of Haumea and moons. (A. Field, Space Telescope Science Institute)
Artist's impression of Haumea and moons. (A. Field, Space Telescope Science Institute)

On December 28, 2004, CalTech astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues found an unnamed dwarf planet drifting through the far reaches of the solar system. But before they could go public with their finding — as they were dotting their scientific i’s — a lesser-known team of Spanish astronomers beat them to the punch. José Luis Ortiz Moreno and Pablo Santos-Sanz announced the discovery of what turned out to be the same dwarf planet.

Something seemed off, though. Users of an online astronomical message board started to ask: How could two teams on opposite sides of the world simultaneously find the same tiny rock? What they found sparked a philosophical debate that questioned the way science is done and may — or may not — have revealed one of the greatest robberies in modern-day astronomy.

Show notes

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out "The Lost World" on Last Seen about the centuries-long hunt for the largest hidden object in the solar system.

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    Full Transcript:

    This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

    Ben: A couple of weeks ago, Amory and I, and our friend Dean, took a field trip …

    Amory: to a place that to me was prettttty familiar.

    Amory: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Charles Hayden Planetarium for our — what time is it? 11 o'clock. — 11 o'clock presentation of undiscovered worlds. 

    Amory: The planetarium at Boston’s Museum of Science, where, fun fact, I used to work, running many-a-show on said undiscovered worlds

    Ben: We, however, were there to see one, specific already-DISCOVERED world that we heard had a story. An unsolved internet-connected mystery.

    Amory: So we made our way down the main hall of the science museum …

    Amory: Like once a month, I'd treat myself to some astronaut ice cream. 

    Ben: I just got that for my kids, for Christmas. Yeah. Freaked out. They freaked out. 

    Ben: ... past a towering, distracting, musical chain reaction-type machine called a Rube Goldberg ...

    Amory:  ... through a locked double-door ...

    Ben: ... to an even-more-towering, 40-foot tall dome that, if you look up, kind of looks like Professor X’s Cerebro. Silver-screen panels arch over a black, metallic projector shaped kind of like an Imperial Probe Droid from Star Wars.

    Talia Sepersky: So we're going to be using our six projectors. You can see there's one right there. There's another one right over there. And then we've got two above the dome right there and two behind us here.

    Amory: Our tour guides, captains, if you will, are two of my favorite former coworkers.

    Talia: I am Talia Sepersky. I am the program manager for immersive theaters.

    Jason Fletcher: My name's Jason Fletcher. I'm an associate producer, which means I do 3-D animations and help run special events and planetarium in the omni. 

    Amory: I’ve never known your actual titles, I would just be like, Talia, she's the bomb. Jason, he's the man. 

    Amory: The Bomb and The Man dimmed the lights, plunging us into a void of darkness and then, they showed us the stars

    Jason: This is like a video game of the universe, right? This is all real data, and Talia is controlling time. So this is where the Sun will be. 

    Talia: Uh, this is almost four o'clock 

    Ben: Can you show me tomorrow's stock prices? 

    Talia: No, I'm working on it. Oh well. 

    And then, they took us to the stars…

    Amory: Lift off, baby. 

    Ben: We blasted out of the solar system, out of the Milky Way, out of outer space, and into a visualization of all the known galaxies in the universe.

    Amory: It's like a it's like a Jackson Pollock painting, but every little drop of paint is a frickin' galaxy. 

    Ben: And also, it's like super three dimensional. Like, you can see — it's going to sound really dumb, but you can see this space. Do you know what I mean?

    Amory: I think everything that is uttered in a planetarium unless Talia or Jason say it is just going to sound super stonery and bad. 

    Amory: This was a detour. As was our brief stop to witness a supernova.

    What we were really looking for was a tiny ball of ice and rock that, relatively speaking, is pretty close to home.

    Ben: And, admittedly, a bit underwhelming …

    Ben: It looks like a meatball. Or maybe like a matzo ball. 

    Talia: Yeah. Could be a matzo ball. A moldy matzo ball. 

    Amory: Welcome to Haumea, one of our solar system’s many distant planetoids, a dwarf planet. Talia projected an animated version of it onto the dome, spinning rapidly. A day on Haumea is just 4 hours long and its orbit is 245 Earth years, giving it a little more than 600,000 days in a year.

    Ben: Haumea’s also a very old matzo ball, almost from the beginning of the solar system, billions of years ago.

    This icy rock is pretty small. If Earth were a nickel, Haumea would be a sesame seed. You’d need an epic telescope to see it.

    Amory: Are we in the Kuiper Belt, like where Pluto is? Talia: We are depending on where in their orbits the two objects are.

    Amory: Haumea was the second dwarf planet to be discovered after Pluto, which was found back in 1930. But that is not why we’re here today.

    We’re here because Endless Thread producer Dean Russell has a question.

    Dean: When was this discovered? 

    Talia: It was discovered ... 

    Dean: This is a trick question. 

    Talia: Yeah, it's a little bit of a trick question. It was discovered in the early 2000s. That is accurate. As to the exact date of discovery, that is what the argument is about. 

    Ben: A huge argument over when Haumea was discovered, or, more to the point, who discovered it.

    Now, you may have never heard of Haumea. Amory and I hadn’t. And, so, it’s possible that you’re thinking, “Who cares who discovered this old, moldy meatball?” Fair.

    Amory: But this argument that Talia referenced exploded like its own supernova years ago into this enormous philosophical debate that questioned the way science is done. A debate that is very relevant to just about everyone today.

    Ben: And this argument also happens to be the tale of how a small pre-Twitter, pre-Reddit internet community may have sleuthed out the culprit behind one of the greatest robberies in modern-day astronomy.

    Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.

    Ben: I’m Ben "Matzo Ball" Johnson. You’re listening to Endless Thread.

    Amory: Coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. And today, we bring you what you could reasonably call…

    Ben and Amory: SPACE HEIST!

    Ben: Producer extraordinaire, space nerd, meatball enthusiast, Dean Russell.

    Dean: Hello, hello.

    Amory: Dean, where does this story start?

    Dean: So, first, I just want to say, because this is a show about internet communities, the internet will come into play here ... but it'll be a minute.

    Anyway, I came across this story a few months ago when I spoke with this guy.

    Mike Brown: Offices need toys because you always just need toys. 

    Dean: Mike Brown is in his 50s, wire-rim glasses, graying stubble. But Mike’s a kid at heart. His office in Pasadena, California, is littered with tchotchkes, RC cars, and elaborate toys.

    Mike: It's a catapult system that catapults cats. And you catapult one cat to the next catapult, which launches a cat, which launches a cat in this whole Rube Goldberg thing.

    Ben: Science loves a good Rube Goldberg. Not real cats, though, right?

    Dean: Not real cats. Anyway, Mike does have a job, which, honestly sounds more fun than playing with Rube Goldbergs. Mike is an astronomer at CalTech. And not just any astronomer, Mike is a planet hunter.

    Mike: You know, if there's a possibility of a planet out there to be found, somebody needs to go look.

    Dean: Now, we know the solar system has eight planets, right? But, Ben, Amory, can you guess how many minor planets we have?

    Ben: Relative minor? Harmonic minor?

    Amory: Depends what you mean by “minor planets.”

    Dean: What, you guys don’t know what minor planets are?

    Ben: Oh yeah, it’s the opposite of major. It’s minor.

    Amory: Oh god. Please tell us, Dean.

    Dean: Okay, a minor planet, a minor planet is like an asteroid, or a comet, or a plutoid, or a centaur, which are kind of like an asteroid-comet hybrid, and, maybe most importantly, it includes dwarf planets, which, we will be talking about.

    Amory: I’m going to say 7,024.

    Ben: I’m going to say 7,025. I play to win.

    Dean: Yeah. Okay. Well, Ben, congratulations. There are 1,170,640 minor planets in the solar system that we know about.

    Amory: Price is Right rules.

    Ben: All right.

    Dean: Back in the 1990s, this number was quite a bit smaller. In fact, the solar system was still kind of an enigma. We didn’t even know the Kuiper Belt — this donut-shaped band of rocks out past Neptune — we didn’t know that existed. But telescopes were going through a big technological transition and astronomers like Mike started finding things.

    Mike: By the end of nineteen ninety two, I can't remember the number, but there were probably two or three. By the end of the next year, there might have been a dozen and by 1997, there were maybe even a hundred.

    Dean: When you discover something in the solar system, that is a big deal. Not only can that one thing tell us a little more about our solar neighborhood and how we all came to be … it can make your career.

    Ben: Let me guess, Mike was pretty good at finding things?

    Dean: Oh yes. And determined.

    Mike: It was, it was dead obvious to me that if you scanned wide swaths of sky, you'd find something big.  

    Ben: Well, wait. What does that even mean — finding a planet? How do you actually do that?

    Dean: The simplest way is to take a photo of the sky. The next night, take another photo of the same exact patch of sky. Then, compare the two.

    Ben: On my phone?

    Amory: No, but I know this. I remember this. So, things that are really far away, like stars, appear to stay in the same place, relative to other stars. That's why we have constellations. But things that are closer to Earth, like planets — those appear to move ever so slightly night to night.

    Dean: And so let’s fast forward to…

    Mike: December 28th of 2004. 

    Dean: Mike’s in his office, no doubt surrounded by 2004-era toys.

    Mike: You wake up in the morning, you start to look at your data. You don't know that this is the day you're going to find something that is going to be a major scientific discovery of the outer solar system. And boom. 

    Dean: Mike and his colleagues find a wanderer. A big one.

    Mike: This was the brightest thing we'd ever seen in the outer solar system. And this was, this was clear to us that this was the this was going to be a major discovery.

    Dean: Mike’s team gave this thing a secret code name, just a long string of numbers and letters. A few years later, it would be given the official name Haumea, a.k.a. the matzo ball we saw at the planetarium. And Mike was psyched.

    Ben: So, what do you do in that situation? Like, who do you call? Get me the president! Who do you tell? How do you announce your discovery?

    Mike: You can do one or two things. You can announce it the second you discover it and say, "We just found something really bright in the sky." And people are like, "Wow, what is it?" And you're like, “Well, we don't know anything about it. Sorry.” Or you can work really hard for six months and know something, learn something about it.

    Amory: So, that makes sense because tons of people have probably thought they discovered something, and got it wrong.

    Dean: Yeah.

    Anyway, he and his colleagues decided to lay low and over the course of several months, they secretly started to learn more about it.

    Mike: We knew about its rapid rotation. We knew that it was a surface covered in water, but was actually as dense as a rock like the world's worst M&M. We knew it had a moon around it. so we had all sorts of information about this object, and we're pretty excited to share it with the world. 

    Ben: So, after this, does Mike announce it?

    Mike: I was literally going to finish that paper and submit it to a scientific journal that day, literally when my wife went into labor a couple of weeks early. And so I dropped it, went to the hospital. 

    Amory: Oh no. I mean, oh yeah, but oh no. What happens next for Mike?

    Ben: He’s in a totally different orbital field.

    Amory: That’s right. Planet Baby.

    Dean: Planet Baby. Yeah, for a little while, not much. This was in early July 2005 that he had the baby. Mike and his colleagues had planned to make the announcement that fall at an astronomy conference in London.

    So, Mike’s team sent a vague description of their talk for the conference’s website. It used the code name for Haumea, so no one knew what they were really going to talk about. But after that, paternity leave.

    Ben: Uh-oh. I know somehow this is going south. I’m not sure how, but I know it’s going south.

    Dean: You’re on to something. Later that month, on July 28th

    Mike: I'm in my groggy state of not sleeping, and I get this email from Brian Marsden, who was the head of the International Astronomical Union Minor— Minor— The king of the solar system. 

    Brian Marsden, head of the Minor Planet Center, the organization that officially catalogs all of the stuff in our solar system. So, yeah, king.

    Mike: Anyway, Brian said, I just got this report of a new object that had been discovered. ... And I quick looked and I realized, Oh crap, they had just reported the discovery of Haumea.

    Dean: You two know what this feels like, right? Someone beats you to a story, or buys the same gift and gives theirs first. This is not a good feeling.

    Ben: Yeah, that’s what you get for having a baby.

    Amory: True speak. True dad-speak.

    Ben: You’re going to get beat out on a few things.

    Dean: I guess so. And it’s hard because it was only a few days before Mike got that email, on July 25, that thousands of miles away at the Astrophysics Institute of Andalusia in Spain, a junior researcher had stumbled upon the same icy rock. Haumea. Or, as the Spanish team referred to it, the "big TNO" — Trans-Neptunian Object.

    Amory: Trans-Neptunian Object as in an object beyond Neptune.

    Dean: Right. And the researcher immediately went to his boss - a middle-aged guy named José Luis Ortiz Moreno. Ortiz wrote to the Minor Planet Center, and then announced his team’s discovery to the world.

    Mike: The way science works correctly is, even though we saw it first, if they announce it first, they are the discoverers. And that's important because that puts the pressure on people to not hang on to their discoveries forever and then say, “Oh no, no, I discovered that 10 years ago. I just didn't tell you.” You know, they were legitimately the discoverers. That's the way it works. Perfectly fine. 

    Ben: I have a feeling it wasn’t perfectly fine. Was it?

    Dean: Nope. Because when a small internet community of space nerds caught wind of what had happened, they started raising questions.

    What they found in 360 Haumea seconds.

    [SPONSOR BREAK]

    Dean: Ben, Amory. I’m thinking of one of the earliest forms of social media. Can you guess what I’m thinking of?

    Amory: Myspace.

    Ben: Friendster.

    Amory: Live Journal.

    Dean: Earlier.

    Ben: GeoCities.

    Dean: Earlier? I don’t know what GeoCities are.

    Amory: Email groups!

    Dean: Ah-ha!

    Amory: Ah-ha!

    Dean: Yes. Mailing lists. Those messy reply-all forums, kind of like the grandmother of Reddit. So, more trivia on mailing lists. Do you know when or how these things came about?

    Ben: Oh, I would say they had to start around the time the email as, like, a function started.

    Dean: Yeah, they came out of Arpanet. They were like the modern-day salon for academics. And back in 2005, there was a popular place for astronomers to hash out ideas. The Minor Planet Mailing List, which sounds pretty cool to me.

    Amory: Yeah, I wasn’t invited into it, so they’re out of my solar system.

    Dean: So, on July 28th, the day Mike Brown got the devastating email about Haumea, the Spanish astronomer José Luis Ortiz Moreno announced his team’s discovery to the mailing list: subject line, “important news.”

    Ortiz bragged a bit, saying this thing could be “Pluto’s father” in size. Remember, Ortiz didn’t spend months studying Haumea, so he didn’t know that what he was saying was totally wrong.

    Amory: But that mailing list freaked out, I bet.

    Dean: Yup. First, they were pumped. Threads and threads of congratulations, questions, and things like that.

    No one knew yet that Mike had already found Haumea. But one user from Hawaii started to put the pieces together. He messaged the group saying, wait, “But is it the same discovery as K40506A?”

    Amory: That’s the code, yeah?

    Dean: Yeah, that’s the codename. That’s the codename.

    Ben: K-dog.

    Amory: It’s got a beautiful ring to it.

    Ben: I think it’s K-dog for short.

    Dean: So it might have been surprising that anyone knew it. And this may have been worrisome because in the high stakes game of who-saw-it-first astronomy, Mike’s team locked their stuff down. Their data, coordinates, telescope aperture, etc.. All that stuff was kept under a tight, heavy lid.

    But then, back on that mailing list, a user from France responded. He didn’t work with Mike, didn’t even know Mike as far as I can tell. But this French guy posted everything. Tons and tons of Mike’s data.

    The tight, heavy lid had a leak.

    Dean: What did this website look like? It's like barebones? 

    Richard Pogge: Really bare bones. I mean, I'm old fashioned. I write HTML by hand. 

    Every astronomer needs a Richard Pogge. Richard is a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. Also ...

    Richard: I was part of a group that builds astronomical instruments. 

    Richard builds telescopes and he was running the telescope that Mike’s team used to find Haumea.

    He had created an online portal where different astronomers could access their telescope logs. This was pretty new at the time. Each project was organized by codename. Richard will never forget Haumea’s codename.

    Richard: This one was called K40506A. 

    Amory: So, what does Richard remember about seeing this news of Ortiz has discovered K40506A?

    Ben: K-dog.

    Richard: I was watching this and thinking, Wow, this is pretty cool. I was actually starting to change my lecture for an upcoming talk I was going to give on Pluto and beyond for my astronomy class for the following semester.

    Dean: He had no idea, though, that Ortiz had found what Mike had already found. Then, Richard got a call from a member of Mike’s team …

    Richard: ... asking me who had access to the pointing logs of the telescope.

    Dean: Did you know the answer to that then? 

    Richard: No, I didn't. I said you know, I really never thought about it. That, could someone else get into our logs, so I promised to go away and think about it. 

    Dean: Mike’s team wanted to know how someone, like the mailing-list randos, could get access to their telescope logs. Because if the randos could do it maybe Ortiz’s team could do it, too.

    Ben: Right, because I guess it’s extremely unlikely that two astronomy teams discover the same object within months of each other.

    Dean: And it felt even less likely when Richard started looking through his website’s security coding and realized it had a typo.

    Richard: First words out of my mouth were not printable. 

    Amory: Richard!

    Ben: That’s not very scientist-y, Richard.

    Dean: When you’re securing a website, you can prevent it from being accessed by Google searches. That’s what Richard thought he’d done. Turns out, he was wrong. So, if you knew the code name for, say, Haumea, you could—

    Ben: K-dog.

    Dean: If you knew K-dog, you could “hack” into the telescope logs by just googling that code name.

    That’s what the French guy on the Minor Planet Mailing List did. And, it seemed possible that that is what Ortiz’s team did, too.

    Amory: Okay, but wait. The French guy, the listserv guy and maybe Ortiz know this secret code name, how?

    Dean: If you remember, Mike’s team planned to announce Haumea’s discovery at a London astronomy conference that fall. The conference posted a rundown online in July. In there was Haumea’s codename.

    Ben:  Okay so, the detective work here is suggesting what? That Ortiz’s team found the codename, Googled the codename, found the telescope logs, and then, claimed the discovery for themselves? Is that?

    I mean, that seems possible but it’s just as possible that they found Haumea on their own. Right?

    Dean: Well, Richard did a little more digging. He started looking at the IP addresses of everyone who’d ever looked at the K-dog telescope logs.

    Richard: 40–50000 IP addresses in this list, most of which were googlebot. So as I began to roll through them, I recognized one pattern that didn't look like the others. And they all pointed back to the Institute for Astronomy in Spain. And I just sat there for a while with my mouth open going, Oh no, oh no, oh no, what have I found? 

    Dean: Ortiz’s team had visited the telescope logs on July 26. … Two days before they announced their discovery to the world.

    Amory: Woof.

    Mike: Well, I mean, what it really turned into is generally fraud. 

    Amory: So, Mike definitely thinks his discovery was stolen. What did he do?

    Mike: I sent an email to Ortiz and saying, "Um, so can you explain to me what's going on?" And he came back very vehement, saying, "This is all your fault. You should never have been hiding these objects to begin with," which is a pretty astonishing statement.

    Ben: That’s like a very Trump-era move. "This is your fault. It’s your fault that this happened, sir."

    Amory: "You made me do this."

    Ben: "If you didn’t put it out there, I wouldn’t have stolen it."

    Dean: So, I reached out to Ortiz’s team multiple times. For months, no one responded … until just before this story was set to publish.

    Pablo Santos-Sanz: Okay, first, I want to say that this is just my personal opinion, right? About something that happened about 17 years ago. So… 

    Ben: Is that Ortiz?

    Dean: This isn’t Ortiz. This is Pablo Santos-Sanz, the researcher who says he’s the one on Ortiz’s team who first saw Haumea … the big TNO.

    Pablo: I jumped on my chair. I was very excited thinking that perhaps it was a real TNO. Perhaps I was discovering the brightest ever discovered apart from Pluto itself. 

    Pablo is an established astronomer now. But back in 2005, he was a PhD candidate. 33 years old. Long, curly hair. Glasses. Goatee. Eager.

    Pablo: At the beginning, there was a moment of joy after the discovery and also many, many congratulated us for the discovery. But unfortunately, this was only for a short period of time 

    According to Pablo, he first saw Haumea on July 25, 2005. It was late, so after he told Ortiz, his boss, they decided to go home and get some rest. The next day, they started doing some homework, trying to make sure that this thing they found hadn’t already been discovered.

    Ben: You don’t stay up late?

    Amory: I was going to say, how do you even sleep after that?

    Ben: Yeah, you just discovered maybe another, the big TNO and you just go home. You’re like, "Uh, we’ll pick it up in the morning. We just discovered something. Maybe we’ll pick it up in the morning. Okay. Alright."

    Amory: "Let’s get a good night’s rest first."

    Dean: They’re very tired, man. I don’t know what to tell you.

    Anyway, the next day, they checked the Minor Planet Center’s database. Nothing there. Then, they saw the conference website. K-dog was described as a bright TNO and they wondered…

    Pablo: Could it be the same object that we had just discovered? So, to check, I did, I think, the logical thing that anyone would have done. To use Google. 

    Ben: Astronomers. They’re just like us.

    Dean: And, yes, they found Mike Brown’s telescope logs. But ...

    Pablo: I’m We did not come to any conclusion as to whether or not the object was the one we had detected in our images. So we didn't know.  

    They didn’t know if Mike’s object was their object … so they went ahead and claimed their discovery anyway, figuring if they found something that was already registered with the Minor Planet Center, then the center would let them know.

    But, as we know, Mike hadn’t registered Haumea. And it blew up in Pablo’s face.

    Dean: I don’t know, do you think that Mike Brown and his colleagues were being unfair in the conclusion that they that they drew? What do you think about that? 

    Pablo: I think they were a tremendously unfair in the way they responded. ... I remember a few emails attacking not only the science we were doing, but also our persons. So I feel really bad with this because I was in the middle of something and I didn't understand why, because at that point, I only was starting my, my scientific career. 

    So, sure, you could see their reaction — saying this was kind of Mike’s fault for keeping Haumea a secret — you could call that proto-Trump and yet Pablo might just be giving his honest opinion.

    Pablo: Science is not a personal thing, right? OK, at the end, I think science is more than us, I think it’s on another level.

    Ben: This makes me, I have to say, this makes me sad.

    Dean: Why?

    Ben: Because space is supposed to make humanity realize that we are all part of the same family. And I think Pablo is getting at that. And this dispute makes me sad that you have these two astronomers who feel like they’re not part of the same family. In this particular instance, very strongly.

    Amory: That’s much deeper than my reaction, which is just like, I went into this thinking like, “Yeah, Pablo, why’d you steal the planet?” And now, after listening to him, I’m like, “Oh no, he sounds very genuine.” And now I’m at a loss and that last thing we hear him say, you’re right Ben, it’s like deeply sad that any of us might feel like we own the knowledge of the actual universe, because that should be a shared thing.

    Dean: I will say that, I — maybe like you, Amory — genuinely don’t know which narrative to believe.

    Ben: Alright. So, let’s go back to this mailing list. Because that French guy tipped everyone off, right? He basically did the same thing Ortiz did. He found the conference website with Haumea’s code name. Googled K-dog. Found Mike’s data on K-dog. So the mailing list knew something was up, right?

    Dean: Yeah. So one would think that the Minor Planet Mailing List would back Mike Brown. But some users sided with Ortiz, saying Mike was being an American chauvinist, which one maybe could understand given, you know… history.

    Amory: It is possible Ortiz was telling the truth. So why not give him the benefit of the doubt?

    Dean: Yeah, and they also said that Mike’s choice to study Haumea in secret for months… that was antithetical not only to astronomy … but science. Because science is the result of collective fact-finding.

    This debate leapt out of the forum and into headlines. It spiraled across scientific fields.

    Ben: Like a wobbly meatball.

    Dean: Exactly like a wobbly meatball. I’m going to ask for your judgments here. Because this is a debate as old as science. When do you study? And when do you reveal? And before you decide, I want you to think about a different slice of science.

    [Jane Wells: Everyone should wear masks in order to protect themselves, but not necessarily an N95 mask.]

    [Joseph Allen: In that case you want one of these better masks. You’ve probably heard of an N95.]

    [New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: We have secured 70,000 hydrocloroquine [sic] … and there is a good basis to believe that they could work.]

    [Stephanie Simmons: Turns out, finding an effective treatment is far more complicated than just one study using a petri dish.] 

    [Dr. Scott Gottlieb: Because what they say is maybe we don’t need boosters because vaccines are still doing their job.]

    [Dr. Anthony Fauci: But I think people should not lose sight of the message that there’s no doubt that if you want to be optimally protected, you should get your booster.]

    These past two years have been confusing. Studies about masks, fomites, hydroxychloroquine, vaccines … with results that aren’t always peer reviewed or are contradictory or preliminary or wrong. And, we know now more than ever that one study is just one study.

    Ben: Right, but some people will cling to that one finding that seems to confirm their worldview and they’ll, like, forget everything else and even if better studies come out later they’ll just stick to that original one and never change their opinion.

    Dean: And so one could argue maybe this specific finding that seems too good to be true or too bad to be true, maybe that should be held … kept secret for a bit and studied further.

    Then again, if you hold valuable information in a pandemic that’s not good either. So if you have to choose a side — early but unverified, verified but late — what do you choose?

    Amory: For me, it has to do with the stakes. There is not human life at stake, we hope, if we know about Haumea or we don’t know about Haumea.

    Dean: Unless it’s coming at us.

    Amory: Unless it’s hurtling towards us.

    Ben: Global death by meatball.

    Amory: That could happen. But this is something, like you said, this is something we face every day in the work that we do because we would rather get things right than get them first. I think I still fall on that side even though, as Mike Brown knows, it’s risky and it sucks.

    Ben: I’m a transparency guy. I think. To me, it’s like, it benefits the world to be transparent as early and often as possible and be honest and straightforward. And, I think, as long as the world receives that transparency, you know, generously and responsibly, and it's received by people who act good upon that transparency, then that’s a good thing. But again it really depends on people behaving well in response to the transparency, to the messiness of transparency, and that’s not always the case, right? So, it’s complicated.

    Talia: In fact, Haumea is not a ball It is much more football shaped. It is in an ellipsoid. And that has to do with the fact that it is spinning so quickly, it's got a very rapid spin. It spins in only four hours and nothing that size in our Solar System spins that fast except Haumea.

    Ben: So Haumea is basically going, Whoa, whoa, whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa.  

    Talia: For eternity. Yes.

    Dean: If your head is spinning like Haumea, there’s one more part of this story. After this astro-espionage came to light, the Minor Planet Center — the governing body in charge of cataloging planetoids — it was at a loss. Who should we say discovered Haumea?

    Today, if you look up this icy rock in the Minor Planet Center database … the spot that says “Discoverer” is blank.

    Mike: This was the largest object in the Solar System, you know, discovered in the last hundred years with no official discoverer. So it's and now no one cares. And, you know, today, I don't care. It was a little harder at the time.

    Usually, the person who discovers an object, gets to name it. So, when Mike and Ortiz’s teams sent their proposals to the Minor Planet Center, it had to make a decision.

    Ortiz and Pablo proposed Ataecina, an Iberian deity.

    Because Mike had just had a baby … his team suggested the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth … Haumea.

    I asked Pablo Santos-Sanz if he would have done anything differently. He told me, if he’d had to do it again, he would have just called Mike Brown and asked … if the object they found was the same.

    Pablo: And of course, in that case, the story would have been, I think, very different. Maybe sweeter for both teams. I think so.

    Dean: Without being too sugarcoated, maybe the moral of Haumea or K-Dog is that we are all part of the same galactic family. So, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call your fellow astronomers.

    Ben: Who are probably awake at ungodly hours anyway giving their new baby a bottle. Thanks, Dean, for bringing us this story.

    Amory: Yeah. Thanks, Dean.

    Dean: Thank you.

    Ben: This looks like hyperdrive. Yeah. You know what I'm saying?  

    Jason: Yeah, punch it, Chewy.

    Ben: Punch it, Chewy. Yeah. 

    Talia: See how the other center isn't circular.  

    Amory: Oh yeah, it looks like a little bar, like a little fun-sized Twix. 

    Talia: Yeah. This is what we think the Milky Way looks like.

    Ben: So, you’re saying it looks like a Milky Way? Is that what you’re telling me? 

    Amory: Yeah, why did I go to Twix? We’re the Twix galaxy now.  

    Ben: Guys, breaking news: The Milky Way looks like a Twix. Oh, this is cool. 

    Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

    Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, Ben's X-Men figurine collection, Amory's Star Wars fanfic? Join OUR email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.

    Also, do us a favor and review us if you like the show.

    Amory: This episode was written and produced by Dean Russell. And it’s hosted by us, Amory Sivertson…

    Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. Mix and Sound Design by Emily Jankowski.

    Additional production from Nora Saks and Quincy Walters. Our web producer is Rachel Carlson.

    Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and a moldy matzo ball. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email endlessthread@WBUR.org

    Dean Russell Twitter Producer, WBUR Podcasts
    Dean Russell is a producer for WBUR Podcasts.

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