Brian Marsden, Astronomer, 1937-2010

The NOVA team sadly notes the passing of Brian Marsden, Senior Astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and a longtime friend of NOVA. Marsden died on November 18 after a long illness.

As director of the Minor Planet Center from 1978 to 2006 and the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams between 1968 and 2000, Marsden served as a sort of celestial traffic reporter, broadcasting the bearings of comets and asteroids to amateur and professional astronomers worldwide. Thanks to his occasional predictions of (possible) asteroid collisions, the New York Times once called him a "cheery herald of fear," "a scientist so sanguine, so droll that he can make possible global catastrophe sound like good news."

Marsden was also a vocal advocate for the "demotion" of Pluto, which is how we convinced him to join Neil deGrasse Tyson in an unorthodox football game at Harvard Stadium for The Pluto Files earlier this year. Marsden faced off against astronomer colleague Mark Sykes, scoring (intellectual) touchdowns in defense of Pluto's classificiation as a dwarf planet. (Skip to 4:30 to see the astronomers take to the gridiron.)

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The New York Times shared this story of Marsden's personal connection with Pluto:

For years he had proposed that Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, should be demoted from planet to asteroid. That proposal was not accepted. But in Prague in 2006, at their meeting held every three years, members of the International Astronomical Union created a new category of "dwarf planets," which included Pluto. Also at that meeting, Dr. Marsden announced that he was stepping down as director of the Minor Planet Center. "He was quite entertained," his son-in-law said, "by the thought that both he and Pluto had been retired on the same day."

All of us at NOVA are grateful to Dr. Marsden for his service to astronomy and for sharing his sharp wit and good humor with our filmmakers over many decades.

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