Book Review: The Pluto Files

I found this book sitting in my supervisor’s office. After flipping through it I though it’d be a fun light read (and I was right!), but it also added a few more dimensions to the very contentious Pluto ‘debate.’ The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet was written by the infamous Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

2013-04-09 08.50.57In short, this was a great summary of Pluto, tracing the little-object-that-could from its inferred existence, to discovery, to re-classification, and finally to the eventual fallout of the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) decision. We all know Dr. Tyson is an excellent science/astrophysics communicator so it may seem natural, on that clout alone, for him to write such a book. After all, what astronomical topic has so captivated the public other than ‘Pluto-gate?’ However, Dr. Tyson was in a particularly important position (or perhaps ‘central position’ is a better word) during the planetary status debate, which better illustrates why an account of Pluto’s ‘rise and fall’ should be written by him.

It was in the early days (circa 1999-2000) of planning the Astronomy exhibit at AMNH, that Dr. Tyson and his team realized that Pluto didn’t quite fit. If you were to group objects in the Solar System into like categories you’d find that Pluto didn’t fit in with Terrestrial Planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), nor with Gas Giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune). All of Pluto’s characteristics match more closely to Kuiper Belt objects: small icy/rocky bits in the outer solar system (past Neptune). In an effort to create a more time-less exhibit, Dr. Tyson and his team therefore presented Pluto as a member of this category, and avoided the term ‘Planet’ in their exhibit all together. Note this was done BEFORE the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially re-classified Pluto as a ‘dwarf’ planet in 2004.

I personally see this as a very pragmatic approach. Dr. Tyson presented the solar system by sorting the objects into like categories, and as a result, he 1) did not mislead the public, and 2) created an exhibit that does not require a face lift when scientific terminology changes. And most importantly, Dr. Tyson approached the problem in a scientific manner: he didn’t ask ‘what do we WANT to call Pluto?’ he asked ‘Where does Pluto FIT?’ As a result of the exhibit’s approach to Pluto, Dr. Tyson received a lot of backlash saying, among other things, that he was not presenting the collective agreement of the scientific community. I believe he handled it very well.

The question of what to call Pluto seems to have struck a chord. It has divided both the public and parts of the scientific community. Wherever you land on the issue, I think it very important you ask yourself WHY you’re opinion is that way. It is very un-scientific to say ‘Pluto was a planet when I went through school, so it’ll be a planet forever.’ Are you holding on to Pluto because of your romanticized notion of the 9 planets?

This was a very fun retelling, including comic strips and personal accounts, of everything you’d want to know about Pluto. I definitely recommend reading it. And keep in mind, it is very likely that the definition of what a planet is will change again as we learn more about the solar and exo-solar systems. Science is an ever-evolving freight train powered by the collective investigations of humanity. It will continue forward no matter how hard you fight it.

 

happy reading!

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