Wednesday, August 17, 2011

BOOK: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown, 255 pages

Science Book Challenge

I posted this to my livejournal account five years ago:
20th September, 2006
So, apparently, people are blogging about the fact that Pluto has been demoted to dwarf planet. And everyone is upset, according to the CBC report I heard on the radio today. Boo hoo, their mnemonic won't work anymore. Well, maybe if they had learned the mnemonic for the scientific process instead of how My Very Educated Mother... they would understand. Science is an evolving arena. The fact that the definition of a planet wasn't working, and there were too many exceptions meant the planets were going one of two ways: lose Pluto, or gain Ceres, UB 313 and several other orbiting objects that have more 'planetary' properties than Pluto. Pluto has only been a planet since 1930. Just because you learned the planets in school, it doesn't mean they will all be planets as long as you want them to be. It's a good thing you weren't alive during the Renaissance, because you never would have let Columbus sail to America, and you would have led the attacks on Copernicus and Galileo.
So, bravo collection of Astronomers who met in Prague. I thought it was one of the most interesting developments in science in a long time. Thank you, and now I have to go learn about this new collection of dwarf planets, and where they fit in the solar system. Long live the scientific process.

All right, it took me five years to actually get around to learning about the new definitions, but in my defense, I must have been waiting for this great book to be written. Mike Brown is the astronomer from CalTech who found a few objects in the solar system with the potential to be planets. He explains, in easy to understand language, how he found it and the processes involved and then the implications for Pluto. How I Killed Pluto is also a memoir, and he includes the distractions of his life (wife and baby) in a humorous way. Brown's passion for the sky and the planets up there is infectious, and he makes it easy to read, and want to learn more, about astronomy. The family stuff was cute and it kept reminding me that this was Mike Brown's story, not just Pluto's. Just the right amount of personal interspersed with the science.

There are rules about naming objects in space - craters on Mercury have to be named for deceased poets and moons of Uranus are named for Shakespeare characters. Objects in the Kuiper belt (which I learned so much about) must be named for creation deities, which meant that astronomers had to research about all kinds of mythology to appropriately name their new discovery.

If you want an easy to follow history of the demise of Pluto, and an introduction to some astronomy, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming would be where I recommend you begin.