RSM Book Review: How I Killed Pluto, and Why it had it Coming

The end of last month, I bought myself a Barnes and Noble nook. Since then, I’ve been filling my local library ebook hold list with a number of books. The library allows you to put up to 10 on hold (I think, it might be more). The first book that came available was the book “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming” by Mike Brown. Mr. Brown is a professor of astronomy as CalTech and is credited with the discovery of a number of planetary bodies beyond the orbit of Jupiter. It is the discovery of these planetary bodies that led to the reclassification of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet.

Mr. Brown writes of his early years as an astronomy professor trying to gain tenure, of meeting his now wife and of waiting for his daughter to be born (which was the same month my daughter was born). I am only a little over half way through the book, and have been moved enough to write a short review of it.

The writing style, so far, is conversational and reachable to all education levels (in my opinion). While some of the orbital mechanics concepts are second nature to this RocketScienceMom, there is very little math in the book (and no equations). In fact, there is only one graphic. The rest of the information about the planets and their discoveries is relayed in words.

I am looking forward to finishing it, and would read more of Mr. Brown’s writings, should he write more than just technical papers (although I suspect a number of those will cross my desk as I run science missions to more and more of the Kuiper belt objects in my day job).

Even though I am enjoying the story of discovery and the way the author has captured the lonely life of astronomers who are awake when the rest of the world is sleeping, I still don’t agree with the conclusion of the IAU that Pluto no longer be classified as a planet. The definition that was settled on is as follows:

(1) A “planet” [1] is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. That last part, part C about clearing its orbit, is apparently the part of the definition that cast Pluto out of the planetary pantheon and into dwarf planet-hood.

Unfortunately, based on this definition, the argument could be made that Jupiter is not a planet because of the existence of the Trojan and Greek astroids in its orbit (albeit they sit in Lagrange points, stable areas in space where an object can stay without the help of additional active propulsion mechanisms). In addition, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune all have moons. Having a moon could violate the “clearing its orbit” part of the definition. The definition itself leaves loads of wiggle room.

So, for me, I will agree to disagree with Mike Brown and the IAU and still continue to call Pluto a planet, and I welcome all of the other dwarf planets being discovered too. But as for the book, I am finding it a really fun read. In spite of the fact that it’s about science and discovery (both really cool things) it is approachable to the lay person. If you find a copy at your local library, I encourage you to pick it up.



About rocketsciencemom
I am a rocket scientist in my day job, and a mother of two all the time. I'm a pop culture addict and amateur artist in my spare time. My typical preferences tend toward sci-fi and fantasy genres but I love a good drama or comedy. Reading the blogs of fellow Lost fans over the years has motivated me to finally write my own. In addition to starting this blog, I have been writing for the parenting blog GNMParents under the name RocketScienceMom (or RSM for short). All drawings and images on this blog are property of RocketScienceMom

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