How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
by Dr. Michael Brown
Spiegal & Grau $15.95 (Kindle $9.99)
From distant chunks of ice on the edge of the solar system, to the daily grind faced by modern observational planetary astronomers -- with a modest dose of international intrigue -- How I Killed Pluto is the most fun read on planetary astronomy I've had in my hands in years. The author, Mike Brown, was at the heart of the scientific debate that quickly spilled over into the national dialogue and for a very good reason: it was Brown and his co-discoverers who found the dim objects which collectively put a wooden stake in Pluto-the-planet's heart.
Years ago most of us were taught the solar system was composed of four terrestrial planets, four larger outer planets, and the one lone oddball on the edge, Pluto. It was simple, it was basic, and thanks to astronomers like Mike Brown, we now know it is wrong. For decades scientists suspected that, far from being a loner, Pluto had many siblings, perhaps dozens, making the so-called conventional planets the exceptions in our solar family. Dr. Michael Brown was at the center of the effort which verified this suspicion with hard, empirical data.
How I Killed Pluto follows the story of how a good old-fashioned observational astronomer juggles parenthood, research, new technology, aging telescopes, and one underhanded rival, and manages to turn the astronomical community on its head in the process. The two things I liked best about the book were the background science and the mental gymnastics, well illustrated by Brown, undertaken by other scientists who should have known better to maintain Pluto's planetary status. There are also wonderful little morsels sprinkled all through the book, such as what it's like to compete with a bright moon for good data, the various kinds of telescopes and image data bases utilized by present day astronomers, and the effect of working a serious graveyard shift for years on an astronomer's sanity.
The author also reveals an impressive commitment to scientific integrity: Brown & co. could have argued they discovered the tenth planet (And the 12th and 13th for that matter), making them the most famous astronomers alive with all the perks and accolades that come with it. Instead, they personally forced a debate over the definition of the term planet that everyone knew had to happen, but few had the courage to start, making Brown and his team mates, in my mind at least, truly great scientists. It was that debate that soon cropped up every where from US primary schools to august European scientific bodies alike. At one point the classification of objects like Pluto rested on a single show of hands over one misplaced adjective!
In short, any scientist or science aficionado will enjoy finding this book in their stocking and love reading it even more. I really can't say enough about how enjoyable it was. I devoured all 250 plus pages of How I Killed Pluto in a single sitting, and quickly went back for literary seconds more than once. And the best part is, the book is available starting tomorrow!
Mike Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. In 2006 he was named one of Time magazine's 100 People Who Shape Our World. Brown et al are the first to observe and ultimately name Kuiper Belt and Trans-Neptunian Objects Eris, Sedna, and Quaoar. He blogs at Planetary Placemats and is now here, time permitting, to respond to a few comments and questions below