Published by Spiegel & Grau on December 7, 2010
Genres: 21st Century, Astronomy, Astrophysics, History, Physics, Science, United States
Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.
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The solar system most of us grew up with included nine planets, with Mercury closest to the sun and Pluto at the outer edge. Then, in 2005, astronomer Mike Brown made the discovery of a lifetime: a tenth planet, Eris, slightly bigger than Pluto. But instead of adding one more planet to our solar system, Brown’s find ignited a firestorm of controversy that culminated in the demotion of Pluto from real planet to the newly coined category of “dwarf” planet. Suddenly Brown was receiving hate mail from schoolchildren and being bombarded by TV reporters—all because of the discovery he had spent years searching for and a lifetime dreaming about. A heartfelt and personal journey filled with both humor and drama, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is the book for anyone, young or old, who has ever imagined exploring the universe—and who among us hasn’t?
The week of the New Horizons Pluto flyby, my friend Lilly and I were sharing our excitement when she recommended How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming to me. I had reservations (much like when I read A Wilder Rose), fearing I’d be shattering childhood memories, but she promised me it would all be okay.
And it was, because a huge part of the “is Pluto a planet or not” debate revolves around the way we define words. What is a planet? Brown uses geology as an example: What is a lake? A pond? How do scientists use these words, compared to how the general public uses them? He points out that definitions “attempt to codify a concept” and discusses how this goes hand-in-hand with ever-evolving perspectives and the acquisition of more knowledge. I’d never thought much about how tricky definitions can be but yeah, I can see why there’s been so much debate.
Keeping in mind the book was originally published in 2010, one of my favorite moments in the book was when Brown described a childhood poster he owned:
“The surface of the planet was covered in icy spires. These days I realize that the artists would have had no idea what Pluto looked like and probably felt the need to make the surface look like something interesting, but as a first grader I was thoroughly convinced that Pluto was covered in icy spires…”
And here we are in 2015, seeing images of Pluto’s icy mountains for the first time, thanks to New Horizons!
How I Killed Pluto is narrative nonfiction of the most engaging sort, and it is completely accessible to the layperson. No prior knowledge needed, no scientific aptitude necessary; if you love space, you will enjoy this book. It’s about the excitement and fast pace of discovery, when to announce of new findings (and some of the drama that can occur in the meantime), and maintaining scientific integrity no matter what opinion the public holds.
Pluto isn’t a planet, because “dwarf planets” aren’t planets? Okay, IAU. Thanks to semantics, and thanks to Mike Brown, I can live with that.
Does Pluto hold a special place in your heart? Do you have any fond childhood memories about stargazing, astronomy, the space program?