Thursday, January 19, 2012

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming-Mike Brown,

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Mike Brown,

Spiegel & Grau, Jan 24 2012, $15.00

ISBN: 9780385531108

Caltech astronomer Mike Brown has found many objects beyond Pluto with all of them except one not even bringing a yawn from the public. However, that one Eris is bigger than Pluto and has similar properties like an irregular orbit. Ironically Dr. Brown learned second order effects of his discovery when the International Astronomical Union changed Pluto’s revered status from ninth planet in the solar system to a new category dwarf planet. For the diligent astronomer that means instead of number ten, he has number three. Dr. Brown explains the pros and cons of the new category, which is built around whether a sun orbiting object has cleansed its “space” of other major object. He understands the uproar of the paradigm relegation as he like most people grew up with Pluto the planet. Much of the memoir involves the author’s personal life before, during and after the discovery. This addition, especially the insight of how his wife and daughter see his “crazy” work and the discovery, enhances the memoir. His spouse stoically accepts the role of an astronomer wife means putting up with obsession and irregular hours similar to the orbit of Eris. On the other hand, Dr. Brown figures his daughter knows that her dad “killed Pluto.”

Readers obtain a fascinating look at an astronomer and his family with an emphasis on the impact of his work on his loved ones. However, it is the explanation of his work, the solar system and the reclassification simplified for lay people to comprehend without dumbing down that makes How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming an entreating whimsical though somewhat mistitled autobiography.

Harriet Klausner

1 comment:

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Brown did not kill planet Pluto. What he did do was discover the solar system's 11th planet, Eris, which in November 2010 was found to be marginally smaller than Pluto. Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern. Stern is the person who initially coined the term "dwarf planet," but he intended it to designate a third class of planets in addition to terrestrials and jovians, small planets that are large enough to be squeezed into a round shape by their own gravity (a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium) but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. He never intended for dwarf planets to not be considerd planets at all.

Astronomers who hold to a geophysical planet definition reject the notion that an object must "clear" or dominate its orbit to be a planet and view dwarf planets as planets too, the same way dwarf stars are a class of stars, and dwarf galaxies are a class of galaxies. This definition makes Pluto the tenth planet because it includes Ceres, a small planet between Mars and Jupiter.

More than five years later, the uproar against the IAU decision, which was done in a flawed process that violated the group's own bylaws, is still going strong. New findings about Pluto and about Vesta (a planetoid in the asteroid belt) are making the case that objects large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium are more akin to the bigger planets than to asteroids and comets.

Even Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson admits the debate is ongoing. I encourage people to learn both sides of the issue. Some good pro-Pluto as a planet books are "Is Pluto A Planet?" by Dr. David Weintraub, "The Case for Pluto" by Alan Boyle, and my own book, coming soon, "The Little Planet that Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

As a woman and an amateur astronomer, I also take issue with an astronomy book putting so much emphasis on a spouse and kids. No other book on this or similar subjects does this. Someone who writes about astronomy should not spend so much time and energy on personal memoirs. Women and girls should be encouraged to become astronomers themselves, not to become astronomers' wives. And the last thing popular books on astronomy need is a new trend of being more memoir than science. The notion of telling his child he "killed" a planet is also disconcerting, as it can easily lead to the misconception that Pluto no longer exists. Significantly, Brown's daughter has already stated her preference in favor of Pluto's planet status.