March 9, 2009

The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson: Review

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I remember when I heard the news. Pluto's not a planet anymore. "Oh no, not Pluto!" I thought for about 5 seconds. Then I got over it. Apparently, some people took it very, very hard. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, recounts how he became the most hated man in America in The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet.

The Pluto Files begins with Pluto's discovery in 1930 and why it was thought to be a planet at the time. It had been discovered by an American which Tyson seems to believe has something to do with why Pluto is such a cultural phenomenon. It also might have something to do with Mickey's dog. Almost from the beginning, scientists questioned Pluto's planet status. Then as technology improved and more discoveries about the solar system were made, planet Pluto was in jeopardy.

When Tyson was put in charge of the new Hayden Planetarium exhibit in New York, he had a dilemma. Where would he put Pluto? After much debate, Pluto was left out of the exhibit. A year went by and only a few children noticed. Then a New York Times journalist wrote Pluto Not a Planet? Only In New York. Tyson's phone rang off the hook and his inbox filled with hate mail. People were pissed! Pluto is a planet, dang-namit!

People went seriously crazy. Some of what he reads and hears is down right silly. Why were people so attached to Pluto? Why should science be dictated by sentiment? Tyson sticks to his guns and doesn't change the exhibit but the museum ads a plaque to explain Pluto disappearance. Eventually people come to terms with Pluto's downgraded status in the solar system.

When I saw The Pluto Files in the new book section of the library, I took it out. I've seen Neil deGrasse Tyson on The Discovery Channel for different things and more recently on Leno discussing this book. He was funny and personable. His personality shines in The Pluto Files. He tries to make astronomy accessible to even people like me and even though I was lost a few times, he always managed to get me back on track. It doesn't hurt that it's short and full of amusing images either.

If you have an interest in what happened to Pluto, then I recommend this book.


13 comments :

  1. lol, all I could think about when Pluto was made a non-planet was that The Magic School Bus universe episode would have to be edited! :D

    This sounds like a great book, though-- I think I'm gonna check it out.

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  2. Oh yeah and I remember a Blue's Clues episode about the planets too. It had a song.

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  3. Cool! I actually just bought this one a couple of days ago. Really excited about it now :D

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  4. I think my hubby would love this one!

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  5. There is nothing to "get over" because Pluto is still a planet in spite of Tyson's interpretation, which is only one side of an ongoing debate.

    The IAU's controversial 2006 definition was made by only four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists, and contrary to Tyson's claim, they are not representative of planetary scientists worldwide. Their decision was immediately opposed in a petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. Many of these scientists along with others and with lay people are working to overturn the demotion or are ignoring it entirely.

    Supporters of Pluto's demotion are wrong in claiming those who want to keep Pluto as a planet are motivated by "sentiment." That is completely untrue. There is in fact a strong scientific argument for keeping Pluto in the planet category.

    In his book, Tyson fails to indicate that the IAU definition states that dwarf planets are not planets at all, which makes no sense and is inconsistent with the use of the term dwarf in astronomy. He is also wrong in calling Pluto a "large comet." Pluto is different from most Kuiper Belt Objects in one crucial way. It is large enough to have been pulled into a round shape by its own self-gravity, a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteorids, comets, and KBOs.

    Many planetary scientists prefer a broader planet definition that encompasses any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. That gives our solar system 13 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. The last four are both planets and Kuiper Belt Objects.

    The IAU definition could make sense if it is amended to include dwarf planets as a subcategory of planets. I encourage all to email the IAU and its president asking that they reopen this issue at this summer's General Assembly.

    People deserve to know that there are two sides to the planet definition controversy. I plan to write a book of my own about Pluto, and I hope you will review it as well. In the meantime, check out "Is Pluto A Planet?" by Dr. David Weintraub for a good take on the other side of this debate.

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  6. Blah, I just wrote a whole comment and google lost it!

    I thought it was pretty neat when Pluto got demoted, mostly because it showed that science is fluid, and definitions can change when more info becomes available.

    I don't have as thorough as background as the previous commenter, but I understood that at that meeting, the planets were changing to either 8 or 13 and they went with 8. My physics books still show Pluto as a planet which gives us the chance to discuss how science can change.

    great review btw. NDT is very animated to watch, I've seen him on The Daily Show.

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  7. Chris- Hope you like it.

    Bermuda- I'm hoping I can get my hubby to read it.

    Laurel- Thanks for the comment.

    Raidergirl- Change can be good.

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  8. Oooh, must read! I just felt for all those little school kids with inaccurate planetary mobiles. In fact, we had an unassembled 9-planet mobile. We threw it away. I think we're all over it, now.

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  9. And, now I've read the comment that says I have nothing to get over. But, still. I'm fine either way.

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  10. Apparently Tyson was right! This is a very heated subject! But nevertheless, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I thought it was just funny.

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  11. Bookfool, you should not have thrown that mobile away; if anything, you should have added four more planets! Thankfully, you can buy another mobile that includes Pluto, as they are still being made and sold.

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  12. This book looks interesting, but my library sadly doesn't have a copy!

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  13. sounds like an interesting book, but I'm not sure I'd like to read this one. I'm not sure I cared enough about Pluto to read this one. LOL

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