Book Review: How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming

How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown

As a self-professed and longtime fan of the planetoid Pluto [1], whose first ever remembered foray into writing other people regarded that particular eccentric icy planet, this is the sort of book that rather unsurprisingly called out to me while I was browsing through the nonfiction section of one of my local libraries in downtown Vancouver.  This is a book that is aimed squarely at people who are fond of astronomy but not professionals in it, who are part of the scientifically literate group of people who passionately support Pluto, followed the New Horizons module as it flew by the planet and snapped photos of the distant rock, and who may even have had a fair bit of experience looking into space and pondering the riddles of the heavens.  If someone is a part of that audience, the title of this book alone is worthy of interest, and the book rewards the interest that the title raises with insight and self-effacing humor about the life of an immensely successful planet hunter.

This book serves more or less as a set of interconnected memoirs.  Part of the book is a memoir of the author himself, giving some background as to his life, the courtship of his wife, and the pregnancy and early childhood of their daughter Lilah, as well as the professional life of the author as an astronomer at Caltech.  Part of the book, though, is a memoir of the increasingly bitter and contentious problems over the nomenclature of bodies in the solar system.  This contention involves not only fans of Pluto who were understandably bummed that the eccentric Kuiper Belt Object had been demoted in the face of proliferating objects of like size and type, but contention between astronomers who, in at least one case, seem to have used improper means of trying to scoop the discovery of new planetoids by others.  The author blends his own discussion of his behaviors as an astronomer, told in a breezy and lighthearted manner, with an understanding of the media savvy and internet forum pressure that accompany a career spent looking up into the night sky through telescopes and examining photo after photo seeking to find new wanderers in the heavens.  The book is engaging and persuasive, and often highly entertaining.

Even so, the book raises some issues that are worth examining in greater detail.  Among these is the rather ad hoc way that astronomers throughout history have tended to view planets.  Under the geocentric model most commonly associated with the Middle Ages or the writings of C.S. Lewis [2], the earth was not a planet but the sun was.  Under the heliocentric model, the earth itself became a planet, and the moon became the first type of moons that were later found throughout the solar system.  Once upon a time Ceres was viewed as a planet until a proliferation of small asteroids between Mars and Jupiter were found, and Pluto’s demotion from a planet to a planetoid came about because of a similar proliferation of similar objects within the Kuiper Belt, some of slightly greater size.  This categorization was done in part out of a desire to keep the number of planets small, but was done in a haphazard fashion without proper attention given to categorization, in which there would be four types of known planet-like objects that orbit the sun:  the rocky “terrestrial” inner planets, the asteroids, the large gas giants, and the rocky and often eccentric Kuiper Belt Objects that are mostly beyond the orbit of Neptune.  Coming from the pen of the most prolific discoverer of contemporary planetoids, this particular book is a welcome reminder of the slippery nature of language and of the hesitating progress of science in the face of both advancing technology as well as of the dedicated efforts of people to turn that technology into increased understanding.  For fans of science, especially astronomy, this is an immensely worthwhile effort.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Book Review: How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming

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