Review: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I was in first or second grade, one of my homework assignments was to write about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since the my previous goal of being a police-person was shot down and laughed at, I had already been thinking on this subject for a lengthy (for a first grader) amount of time. I thought and I thought and finally, I got a great idea. I thought of something that would be fascinating to me a well as praise-worthy to my parents. When I let my parents read my essay entitled “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up,” I thought they’d be thrilled and pat my head at having such high aspirations. To my surprise, their faces darkened and my mother turned to me and said, “No! You cannot be this!”

I had wanted to be an astronomer, but my English in first grade wasn’t very good at all, so instead of ‘astronomer’ I wrote ‘astrologer.’ My parents had to look this word up in their Chinese-English dictionary. They asked me what I expected to do as an ‘astrologer.’ Still thinking I would be an astronomer, but having a vague, six-year-old understanding of the occupation, I said I would look at the stars and planets and tell people stuff. This, to their horrified minds was exactly what an astrologer of the “call me at 1800-PSYCHIC” kind did. So they forbade me from taking on this occupation and that’s how my short-lived life as a future-astronomer ended.

Luckily, Mike Brown didn’t have the same experience and not only is he a famous astronomer, but he’s a pretty good story-teller too. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is a humorous look into the chaotic years surrounding the Pluto controversy — whether it’s a planet or not. Before reading the book, I still had an almost six-year-old level of understanding of what an astronomer did. I’m now properly awed at all that scientists have discovered from looking at the sky.

When I think of planets, I think of pretty pictures taken from outer-space devices of colorful round things. What I didn’t realize was that a lot of what astronomers of Brown’s kind do is look at tons of pictures, keeping an eye out for almost untraceable movements of things that look like stars from one picture to the next. It’s amazing how much can be figured out using simple geometry and some not so simple math. I never really thought of it this way, but looking up at the sky and trying to find planets and other moving masses is kind of like an ant on the floor trying to figure out what that thing way up in the ceiling is. Except with way more distance.

How I killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is by no means an astronomy textbook, even an introductory one. But it is a pretty readable, layman’s version of what an astronomer probably does in his day to day life. I appreciated the personal stories of his growing family that Brown weaved in between his astronomical discoveries, but I wasn’t that interested in them at the end and really wanted to just read about the Pluto drama. I had no idea there were such heated feelings around whether Pluto should still be considered a planet or not.

Before reading the book, I never really questioned what exactly was a planet and even now I’m still a little hazy. But at least now, I feel a little more comfortable saying that no, Pluto is not a planet.

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  1. says

    But Pluto is a Dwarf Planet. 😉

    I watched the PBS Special, The Pluto Files, that was based on the same subject. They visited the hometown of Clyde Tombaugh and explored why the planet was reclassified. Pluto has always been a favorite of mine and I was a little bummed when I first learned they were not calling it a planet anymore. But I realized that folks with a lot more knowledge on the subject than myself made this decision and Pluto was still technically a Dwarf Planet. I am looking forward to the New Horizons mission to Pluto, New Horizons will reach Pluto in 2015.

  2. says

    Before making up your mind, first read up on both sides of the debate. Pluto is not dead; Mike Brown tried but failed to “kill” it. The IAU demotion was done by only four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists. It was opposed by hundreds of planetary scientists in a formal petition led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. 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, hopefully out in 2011, “The Little Planet that Would Not Die: Pluto’s Story.”

    And it is not too late for you to become an astronomer if that is what you still want. I say, go for it!

  3. Ellie Hale says

    Sorry, Laurel, Pluto is pretty dead. Just because you post the same comment to every web site that ever mentions Pluto doesn’t really make the issue that alive anymore. Your arguments in favor of Pluto are really just emotional pleading rather than science. You should try reading Mike Brown’s book yourself; you might actually realize that 8 planets makes a lot more scientific and cultural sense than leaving Pluto in.

  4. says

    No, sorry to you, Ellie, or should I say Mike; rumors of Pluto’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Just because you say the same thing over and over again on your book tour about having “killed” Pluto does not make it true and does not make Pluto dead. It seems you have a great deal of emotion invested in being the person who “killed” Pluto. This makes absolutely no sense, as having discovered three planets is a much greater accomplishment, and you should celebrate that. My arguments and the arguments of those who support dwarf planets being classed as a subclass of planets are not “emotional pleading.” They are based on sound science, specifically, the geophysical planet definition, according to which a planet is any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. You should read David Aguilar’s National Geographic book, “Thirteen Planets,” for an understanding of why counting dwarf planets as planets makes a lot more scientific sense than not doing so. The book is for both kids and adults. I have no intention of reading Brown’s book, as long discussions about his marriage and kid or about how he is the “decider” of the solar system really contribute nothing to my understanding of the subject as an astronomer.

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