Review: Books about Pluto

I’m not sure how it happened, but I woke up one day and half of my bookshelf was taken up by books about Pluto. Not that I’m complaining. Pluto is everyone’s favorite little ice ball to argue about. The cover of Neil deGrasse Tyson’ book The Pluto Files has a quote from Jon Stewart “You gotta read this. It is the most exciting book about Pluto you will ever read in your life.” The jokes on you Stewart. There is more than just one book about Pluto out there and Tyson’s isn’t even the best.

My 3 favorite books about Pluto

Each of these books has a different focus and will probably appeal to different people. Tyson’s book is the perfect book to put on the shelf in the super market for the average American to read. The book takes you into the topic assuming you don’t know much about planetary science and guides you through the “is it a planet” controversy with pictures, poems, and quite a bit of science. My favorite part of the book is by far Tyson’s descriptions of the hate mail he received from school-aged children the country over. The Pluto Files is a fun read you can finish in an afternoon.

Next down in the pile is something I picked up in a store in Flagstaff, Arizona, just a stones throw from Mars Hill where Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh. Pluto and Beyond is much more a history book. It has quite a few less pictures than The Pluto Files… scary! Author Ann Minard gives you a great historical context to view the discovery, and demotion, of planets through without all the hyperbole. She uses the controversy surrounding Pluto in the mid-naughts in order to tell us the history of Lowell Observatory as well as some of the history of how cosmology and planetary science evolved in the early 20th century. This book is definitely not for the casual space fan. Pluto and Beyond is only about 160 pages but has a lot going on. I think this is a must read for anyone involved in astronomy or who considers themselves an astronomy buff, but I wouldn’t recommend it to people who don’t normally read books about space.

Lastly is How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. If you’re going to read any book about Pluto, read this one. Everyone knows Pluto got short shrift from the IAU in 2006, but most people don’t really know what was going on in the scientific community that lead to the controversy. There’s no one better to tell the story than Mike Brown, who discovered more “dwarf planets” than he can name. Mike Brown is an astronomer in the tradition of Carl Sagan: smart, accomplished, but also charming and well spoken. Dr. Brown breaks the mold of scientist memoirs by exposing what can almost described as a “seedy underbelly” of his field – although that may be a bit harsh. I had no idea there was high-tech backstabbing and plagiarism going on in the world of astronomy. Astronomy isn’t exactly a field where you’re going to strike it rich or even win a Nobel Prize, so most astronomers do it for the love of science only. I suppose you can’t escape human nature.

HIKP is a page-turner because Dr. Brown makes you feel like a part of his research team. You want to find out if he finally discovers that “Planet X” he is looking for and what it will mean for science. The truth of what happened isn’t as exciting as discovering the 10th planet, but it is revealing about how science works. The truth is that this story is far from over. What Mike Brown did is something few scientists can do so single handedly. His research blew open the status quo and caused a whole field to reassess the entire taxonomy of their science. What is a planet? Should we even have a definition for a planet? How do we classify things if simply “planet” and “non-planet” aren’t good enough? These are questions we are still answering.

You can follow Mike Brown @plutokiller (hilarious, right?) and he regularly tweets from the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii or other observatoires while doing observing to find out what all of those TNO (Trans-Neptunian Objects) are really made of. I, for one, hope he writes a sequel. In the mean time, check out his blog at Mike Brown’s Planets.

You can get all three of these books on Amazon.com:

Pluto and Beyond

The Pluto Files

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

I suppose at this point, I might as well complete the collection and pick up the other books out there on Pluto. Better start a list.

February 14, 2012 10:46 pm

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