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39 of 54 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 14, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I admit, based on the title of this book, i was expecting something more sensational. Drama, intrigue, or something like that. Alas, the title is far more dramatic than the book.

So what can you expect with in this volume? Easy: an informative but fairly flat account of the events in the author's life leading up to his discovery of the object that caused the international body that regulated astronomy to change the definition of 'planet' such that Pluto is no longer included, and a bit of the controversy afterward. This means we get some lively recollections of discovering a few large objects in the Kuiper Belt, but also an account of how he met his future wife, where they went on vacation, the ruse he used to propose, and so on. It's more of a limited autobiography of a successful astronomer than an account of the death of Pluto's planethood. The stories about his kid learning sign language are cute, but totally unrelated to the actual subject of the book.

It's also remarkably devoid of science. There are little snippets here and there explaining the difference between the kind of photos different telescopes can take, or why some things in space are round while others are not, but it's very, very basic. No one should avoid reading this book for fear of it being too technical or science-y.

The author has a compulsion to give us the exact text of emails he sent, especially regarding the conflict with a team of Spanish astronomers who may or may not have 'stolen' his discovery of an object he found during his research. While that conflict is relevant to the story, and repeating the full text of an article he wrote defending his actions was relevant because it discussed the scientific method, i'm a little puzzled about why the author included an email he sent to the Spanish team's supervisor recommending censure.

Because i was in grad school at the time, i totally missed the whole Pluto's-not-a-planet-anymore thing. I really had no idea how it went down. Now i do. I also know the sign language gesture for 'cat', but that'll be less useful for making smalltalk at parties. Either way, this is a readable, though not terribly exciting, account of Pluto's demise, so if you missed the news on it too, it's probably worth picking up.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2011
What's not to like? There's romance, intrigue, travel, mystery, righteous indignation, skulduggery and really BIG power tools!!! Seriously, the tools and techniques by which astronomical surveys are conducted are described in this book in quite readable fashion for the layman, but the true attraction of this book is to be invited along for the ride into the life of a man with a passion, on the hunt, at the leading edge of a scientific field. We get to glimpse the person behind the work and find him much like ourselves with all the vulnerability, uncertainties and self-doubt that that implies. We also get an insight into what drives most researchers - the pursuit of that moment when the curtain rises and the current world view we have fussily cataloged is suddenly revealed as a detail in a far more complex work. That moment is like an electric shock and the recipients of these shocks are addicted to hunting down the next jolt. This book gave me that jolt at 4:00 a.m. Mike is a great story teller and I can't wait to read what he finds next.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2011
HIKP Is a delightful look at the hectic life of Mike Brown, the man whose team discovered large planetoids - Eris, Sedna, Haumea and others -- beyond Pluto and hastened that planet's end. As a planet.

Like any good Hollywood movie, HIKP is interwoven with a tender love story, in this case, Brown's fortuitous meeting with his future wife, Diane, their marriage and the birth of their daughter. Brown's most fertile (!) period of discovery overlay his discovery of the small bodies that he found in the cold and barely known space beyond Pluto. He and his team scoured old photographic plates, and new digital images, searching great swaths of sky for blinky little images. In the midst of this search, his daughter was born, and Brown's attention was pulled into the domestic sphere. As a parent, I commiserated with his efforts trying to juggle family leave and bottle-feeding with an obsessive search for planets. But meanwhile, back at the lab, nefarious forces were at work to rob Brown of his hard-won discoveries!

HIKP is a fun, and pretty informative about the structure of the outer solar systems and the pains that astronomers still go through to find what they are looking for. I enjoyed Brown's description of the hardships of using old photographic plates, lugging them up and down stairs in the dark to form faint images. The advent of digital astronomy was a great help to his search for the tiny pinpricks of light that signaled a discovery. Brown fights his colleagues (who think there is nothing to find or peek at his data), an irate mob of amateur astronomers ticked that he bent a few rules, and the fusty protocols of the International Astronomical Union that dislikes brown's habit of announcing names before they are officially confirmed. Brown is at his most engaging as he describes his obsession with revising the definition of a planet. But what is the right thing to do -- demote Pluto (and risk the wrath of school kids everywhere) or to promote hundreds of newly-found, Pluto-like bodies?

The book is a fast-paced and loving look at a field that few of us know about, described by one of its great minds and most passionate advocates.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 12, 2010
The bit about killing Pluto is a joke, of course. Pluto is still out there, just as oblivious of what people call it as ever. But it was Mike Brown whose discoveries forced the astronomy community to address the anomaly of Pluto being classified as a planet. And he, despite his years-long quest to discover a tenth planet, despite the glory associated with being the only living discoverer of a planet, was true to his scientific convictions, and argued against his discovery, and therefore against Pluto, being considered a planet.

I will admit that I came into the Pluto controversy with a strong view of my own. I am one of those people who concluded many years ago, long before I ever heard of Mike Brown, that Pluto was not a planet. When it was discovered Pluto was thought to be quite a large object, and its designation as a planet made sense. But additional measurements showed it to be much smaller than originally thought,* smaller, in fact, than Neptune's moon Triton, itself believed to be a captured Kuiper Belt object. Further, it is locked in a orbital resonance with Neptune, where Pluto makes three orbits of the sun in the time Neptune makes two. So Pluto doesn't even orbit freely around the sun.**

I've heard Mike Brown talk about his experiences, and came to this book expecting a good read. He delivered. The astronomy is interwoven with Brown's life during the period of discovery. Some may object to this, but scientific discoveries are made by people who are concurrently living their lives. Too often what we hear about are the odd ducks who live only for their science. But most scientists aren't like that; most have lives beyond science, and their work is intertwined with their broader existence.

In this book we follow Brown from his early years in astronomy to his decision to look for another planet beyond Pluto. During his early, less than successful, attempts he meets, as a result of his work, the woman who will become his wife. We follow his courtship, marriage, and honeymoon as the search continues. The fruition of his search, the discovery of several large Kuiper Belt objects, overlaps the gestation and birth of his daughter.

During the time he is completing papers on his discoveries, and awaiting his daughter's birth, controversy erupts. A previously unknown astronomer in Spain appeared to have found one of his discoveries, and beat him to a public announcement. Initially gracious, Brown learns that the Spaniard apparently used the internet to learn where he had pointed a telescope to track the object, and used that knowledge to find the object and claim the discovery. This motivates a discussion of how science works, and the competing pressures to, on the one hand, announce discoveries so as to claim credit and, on the other hand, to get the facts together and write a comprehensive paper that adequately describes the discovery.

Having weathered that controversy, the Pluto issue explodes. Brown provides a comprehensive discussion of why it doesn't make sense to call Pluto a planet. He writes about the last time astronomers had this problem. (No, Pluto wasn't the first.) When Ceres was discovered between Mars and Jupiter in 1801 it was considered the eighth planet. (Neptune hadn't yet been discovered.) Then more "planets" were discovered between Mars and Jupiter. It was eventually realized that all these bodies couldn't be considered planets, and they ended up all being called asteroids. (The decision of the International Astronomical Union on Pluto made Ceres, like Pluto, a "dwarf planet".)

Similarly, Brown argues convincingly that Pluto is simply one of the larger bodies in the Kuiper belt. Its interaction with Neptune caused it to be discovered earlier than other large Kuiper Belt objects, but it is otherwise unexceptional. The book includes an excellent discussion on how scientists choose categories for objects, and why definitions matter.

All in all, this is a compelling book that captures the story of discovery and two controversies, as well as the reality--sometimes mundane, sometimes not--of how scientists actually live and work. And how can you not love a book where the astronomer gets the girl?

* In 1980 A. J. Dessler and C. T. Russell wrote a humorous one page paper that was published in EOS (vol. 61, no. 44, page 690) titled "From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: The Pending Disappearance of Pluto". In it they pretended to take the historical mass estimates of Pluto as being correct, did a mathematical fit, and predicted that Pluto would disappear in 1984. They then speculated on what would happen after it disappeared. This is available online, just search for it.

** I've heard the argument that Neptune could just as well be said to be in an orbital resonance with Pluto. While in a narrow technical sense that is true, saying it makes about as much sense as saying Neptune is in orbit around its moon Triton. Neptune is eight thousand times more massive than Pluto, and "captured" Pluto while itself remaining in a nearly circular orbit. Further, there are other Kuiper Belt objects in orbital resonance with Neptune, Pluto is simply the largest. When it comes to gravity size--or at least mass--matters.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2012
Is Pluto a planet? Whatever you think the answer may be is really beside the point; the question itself is fascinating and worth exploring.

Deciding what is and is not a planet may seem simple enough to those who have never given the matter any thought, but Brown opens by reviewing just how challenging the issue has been throughout history. As a species, we've been looking at up the skies for a long, long time. Over that time, our understanding of what it was we were seeing has changed as we've learned more and more about our universe and how it works. It's only natural that such change will continue to occur as we continue to learn more and more about what we see when we look up. And that's what Brown presents us with in this book; while he takes a stand on Pluto's planethood, for me the real core of the book was the process of discovery, the broadening of the solar system and human understanding of it, and how what we are continuing to learn forces us to rethink what we thought we already knew. Easy to follow even for a lay reader, at times the book feels more like a novel than a recounting a scientific work due to the thrill of discovering new stellar bodies it contains as well as the human tension from his personal life during the same period that Brown intersperses with his work searching for new planets. I can therefore recommend the book even for people who don't care whether Pluto is a planet or not, because it isn't just about taking a position in that debate, but about discovery in space and what it means for us here on this planet.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2010
It shocked me to realize just over halfway through "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming" that such a book would orbit the top of my short list of all-time favorites. But it did--and it landed closer to the periapsis than the apoapsis. Why?

I'm not a scientist; indeed, my interest in astronomy, while healthy, halts one step short of an emotional attachment to Pluto. Hence, I suppose it was easier, unencumbered by a wounded celestial psyche, to embrace Mike Brown's story of the stepchild planet and his unapologetic role in its demise.

I am, however, a writer, and Mike Brown's startlingly delightful prose is priceless--educational, poignant, illuminating, and subtly hilarious, if that doesn't put too much of a strain on one's oxymoronic sensibilities. How do you read a book full of gritty technical detail covering years and years of painstaking astronomic observation and find yourself laughing out loud page after page. Just look at the title if you want a glimpse of his writing voice. I mean really, how do you *not* read a book with a title like that?

The emotional attachment I did develop was to the author and his family. Mike weaves his personal trajectory from single PhD student to fiancé then to husband and father seamlessly into his ascension as a renown astronomer and a scientist. As a non-technical type, I was smugly pleased how wife, Diane, and daughter, Lilah, influenced Mike's cerebral center of mass a bit closer to the right-brain end of the spectrum, albeit kicking and screaming the entire way.

Finally, Mike ambushed me with his beloved science. While already somewhat familiar with orbital dynamics, by the end of the book I was surprised to discover how much I had learned about astrophysics without even realizing it was happening. Actually, that's the only way I could learn anything about astrophysics. He made it fun.

Kudos to Mike, a chivalrous bow to Diane and a big squeeze for Lilah. All three of you made my day.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon November 8, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Over the period of several years Mike Brown, an astronomer at CalTech, discovered large objects in the Kupier Belt (the asteroid belt outside of the orbit of Neptune) that led astronomers to consider the question, "What is a planet?" and "What does this mean for Pluto?". It took years, but eventually astronomy's governing body voted on the status of these newly discovered bodies...were they to be considered planets or not?...and what does this mean for Pluto, which is of a comparable size and location to these new discoveries?

Brown weaves a clear and engaging narrative of his experiences as these events unfolded. I was fascinated by his description of how astronomers do their work, how they accumulate observations, how they analyze those data, and then write up their results so that others have information about the new discovery when it is announced.

Brown uses an interesting method of helping the reader stay up to date on what happened when by commenting on things like his own engagement, the birth of his daughter, and his daughters development and growth. This part of the book provides an interesting insight into the mind of scientists, how they view the world and try to make sense of it.

Interestingly, Brown was not centrally involved in the official discussions and decisions that demoted Pluto from being a planet to being a dwarf planet, but even though the decision to keep Pluto at the status of a full planet would have recognized some of his own discoveries with the same label, Brown does an excellent job of explaining why that would not have been the best outcome.

So, if you are still mourning the loss of Pluto from the list of planets in our solar system, here's a book by the person best poised to know and explain why that is.

This book is highly recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy or how science works, or both.

Only 5 stars because I can't award more.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 25, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book provides great insight, from the astronomer's viewpoint, of a branch of science that has spawned countless movies, books, television shows--both fiction and non-fiction. This branch of science inspired a now iconic speech given by President Kennedy at Rice University, in which he challenged the nation to send men to the moon and bring them safely back to Earth.

That discipline of science, of course, is astronomy. This book details a series of events in the life of astronomy Mike Brown, and it centers on the concept of what a planet is. The answer isn't a matter of semantics, and by the end of this book the reader understands why.

Well written and factually accurate, this book takes us into the work and personal life of a now famous astronomer. Brown explains how and why he ended up being an astronomer, and he helps the reader see the relevance of astronomy to our everyday lives. We get to see behind the curtain, too. Astronomers are actually human.

Pick the characteristic that makes a person most outstanding in his/her field, and you find that same characteristic annoying at times. Just as you want your accountant to be "anal retentive," you find this same characteristic keeps that person from being the life of the party. The attributes that make a person a great engineer also make that person get under the skin of other people.

In the case of an astronomer, it really helps to be obsessive. Otherwise, you're likely to give up because the "results" are so rare. A person who needs instant gratification is unlikely to last as an astronomer. We see Brown is an obsessive person, and he even points this out. He's obsessive about his work, and he's obsessive about his wife and daughter. The possessiveness about his daughter is probably humorous to most people (being an engineer and MBA myself, I find this behavior "normal" but realize most other people do not), especially when you read about the charting of data online.

My primary goal when I read about astronomy is to become more informed on the science of it. I hadn't expected to be informed on the human side of it, intrigued, and entertained. But that's what this book delivers.

We find in here, for example, a conflict arising from primate dominance instincts. You may recall the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which an ape throws a bone and it tumbles over and then morphs into a space station in 2001 (my recollection may be a bit inaccurate due to time, but that's the gist of it). This symbolism wasn't there by accident.

By coincidence, I was listening to an audiobook on primate behavior when I started this book and another audiobook "The Ape in the Corner Office" as I finished it. The two audiobooks explain perfectly some of the events that Brown relates. Basically, even astronomers will sacrifice science to get their primal primate needs met. The same problem exists in many other areas of science. This truth exposes us to dangerous ground, intellectually.

If you examine that collection of fiefdoms / monkey tribes known as the US Federal Govt, you find this primal primate behavior drives everything. Scientists in this environment are basically there for window dressing, seldom being listened to by the top apes. In the typical large corporation, same thing.

The whole "Is Pluto a planet" question is easy to answer scientifically. However, getting a logical answer made official after Brown's discovery of "the tenth planet" almost did not happen. Brown provides both sides of the story, here. Actually, there are more than two sides; think in terms of a polygonic shape.

In the end, Brown did get the ruling body of astronomical nomenclature to adopt a logical, scientific, supportable answer. In this book, Brown shows how he did it and how it almost did not happen. This book is a quick read, even though it's just over 250 pages. After about the first third of the book, the pace accelerates and I had a hard time putting it down past that point.

This book consists of 13 chapters, a prologue, an epilogue, acknowledgements, and an index. The copy I read was an advance copy printed about four months before the official release date. Normally, I find mechanical errors all throughout such a pre-release. I guess it's because Brown is an astronomer (thus obsessive and anal-retentive) that I cannot recall a single error. Contrast that to the typical non-fiction release, and we have an object lesson in just how competent Brown is when it comes to getting details right. Even details that are not in his particular field.

I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in what it might be like to be a scientist.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2012
As the title says I'm old school and I believe that Pluto is still a planet. I decided to read this book to see if Mike Brown could convience me to change my mind. He didn't, I wish he could have. That's why I gave the book four stars instead of five. I found his arguements somewhat vague and felt they could have been more clearly written. For example "Anything new that wants to be called a planet needs to be a significent presence in our solar system...", what does he mean by significent presence? He also, in a couple of chapters uses the word "important" and he never quite explains clearly the word important in describeing planets in our solar system.

Still I admit I found the book a good read for if nothing else he goes into the trials and tribulations of astronomical discovery and I would still recommend this book to other readers weither you agree with Mike Brown or not.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I borrowed the book from the library and read it in a few days. It told the tale of how Trans-Neptunian objects kept being discovered, each one larger than the preceding, until the discovery of one larger than Pluto caused a commotion leading to the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a "dwarf planet". I could hardly put the book down. Mike Brown describes the solar system, then goes into the discovery of each Trans-Neptunian object, including Quaoar, Sedna, and the three bigger ones: Santa (Haumea), Easterbunny (Makemake), and the big one, Xena (Eris). I found especially interesting the conflict between his group and the astronomers in Spain over Santa, and it gave me the impression of a child finding a prize and another one snatching it from him and yelling that he discovered or won it.

He also tells us about his personal life and how his analytical thinking influenced that, including computing the times when his daughter Lilah was most likely to cry in the night. And most importantly, he gives good reasons as to why Pluto (and also Eris, Makemake, and Haumea) should not be considered a planet.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in astronomy, and also perhaps to couples about to have their first child.
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