148 of 154 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2009
My father discovered Pluto in 1930. Neil Tyson's book is an interesting and enlightening history of the discovery and the controversy surrounding the new definition of major Planets and Tyson's decision to omit Pluto from the depiction of our solar system at the new Rose Center in New York. Although I do not agree with all his points of view, I do applaud his endeavors in astronomy, writing and education.
46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2009
Once again, Dr. Tyson engages our minds with a timely topic much grander than our own existence. My [...] science students have been enraptured by this fiery debate. Dr. Tyson is a wonderful "EXPLAINER" who makes science come alive for those with little or no formal education in the field. His writing style is identical to his witty dramatic live lectures. Highly recommended!!
Dr. Tyson... I hope you know how much the younger Americans NEED you to continue your work. Your enthusiasm for science is contagious and that is just what Young America needs to take the reins of scientific research in today's ever-changing world. You are needed and LOVED!!
Pembroke Pines Charter Middle School
Pembroke Pines, Florida
P.S. My students REALLY want you to come visit us. There's NO SNOW here in SE Florida!
76 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2009
Format: Kindle Edition
I rate the hardback book with 5 stars, but the kindle edition with only 2 stars because of the missing cartoons, photos, charts and graphics. The essay is still well worth reading, but you will miss a lot if you don't have the graphics. I ended up going to my local bookstore and purchasing the hardback when I realized that the Kindle edition had left out the 35 color illustrations and 10 black and white illustrations. I know that Kindle doesn't show color, but the color illustrations could have been reproduced in gray scale.
It is a great book, but a mediocre kindle edition.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the world's most famous scientists. He is an astrophysicist and a columnist for _Natural History_. In addition to his own research and technical writings, he has written popularizations like _Death by Black Hole_, and he has produced television documentaries on the cosmos. It was as director at the Hayden Planetarium that he inadvertently stepped into one of the biggest scientific controversies of recent years. It had nothing to do with religious antagonism against evolution or a universe more than 6,000 years old. It had nothing to do with global warming. What got the public up in arms against him was a celestial body smaller than Earth's Moon, an icy object five billion miles from the Sun that no one knew for sure existed until its discovery in 1930. Tyson and his team creating an exhibit for the planetarium did not include Pluto in its models of planets. When this was discovered, and when the decision to leave Pluto out was found to be deliberate, Tyson became possibly the most hated astronomer on the planet. In _The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet_ (Norton), he has reported his own role in the controversy. There are serious scientific themes here, but this is a fun book. Tyson doesn't seem like a person who would relish bothering anybody, but he is instead amused by all the fuss, and much of his book is hilarious. Nonetheless, he has used it (always the teacher) to give a history of our knowledge about Pluto, to illustrate the way science handles categories and conflict, and to demonstrate the astonishing difficulties of making a good definition.
The problem of naming things properly, and thereby classifying them, shows up all the time in biology, but is rarer in astronomy. The problem is that nature is not orderly or logical and resists our impulse to pigeonhole it at any scale. Planets are celestial bodies that go around the Sun, to be sure. But astronomers never had a problem with moons - moons go around the Sun, too, but they seem to do most of their orbiting around their designated planet, so no confusion ensued. In fact, by 1851 we had eighteen planets zipping around the Sun, until these were demoted to asteroids in their asteroid belt. In a similar circumstance, tiny Pluto is merely the biggest of many ice balls within what is now known as the Kuiper Belt. So no Pluto model was built for Tyson's exhibit. No press release of Pluto's demotion was put out, and the exhibit was not controversial until one year later a story in the _New York Times_ had a page one headline, "Pluto's not a planet? Only in New York." And then Tyson started to get hate mail. Tyson's reports on the protests and his responses to them, are great fun. He has included some endearingly cute letters from kids, including the one from the very first person to note Pluto's absence from the Hayden display, a seven-year-old who included a drawing to show how the model ought to be made. He has also included many cartoons - the cartoonists had a field day over Pluto's demotion and people's reaction to it.
The other reason people seem fixed upon including Pluto in the set of planets is simply that this is what they were taught in school. Tyson lists many mnemonic sentences, the first letter of each word being the first letter of each planet in order from the Sun outwards ("My very elegant mother just sat upon nine porcupines" is the one I remember from childhood.) Tyson shows that there is nothing wrong with mnemonics, but writes, "Because of exercises such as this, elementary school curricula have unwittingly stunted an entire generation of children by teaching them that a memorized sequence of planet names is the path to understand the solar system." His exhibit, for instance, does not organize by what is a planet and what isn't. It draws comparisons and contrasts between what are the "terrestrials", the inner four planets all of which are rocky, small and dense; and the outer four, the gas giants, all of which are big, gaseous, ringed, and multiply-mooned. A kid who can sort the solar system out that way is a lot further along than one who can recite an ordered list of planets. _The Pluto Files_ (note that it puns on "Plutophiles", the people who were protesting in favor of their favorite planet) is an exercise in this sort of instruction. Ostensibly, it is about an amusing battle of what happens when science but also culture makes definitions, and it works at this level delightfully well. It is also, and more importantly, an introduction to thinking beyond the definitions and categories and to better understanding the messy, fascinating star system we live in.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2009
A contemporary topic, Pluto's planetary reclassification calamity has been both an emotional and a scientific issue ever since the N.Y. Times revealed that the Rose Center (Hayden Planetarium) had left Pluto out of the planetary lineup. Dr. Tyson has been in the thick of it even before the story broke. His account of the events and colorful comments that ensued is enjoyably portrayed throughout the book. As in his other books, his effervescent writing style makes this book an easy read even though he includes a lot of names and facts pertinent to the history if Pluto and its new status. It is a short 160 page book filled with many color images and illustrations, which allowed me to read it in only one day. Many, if not most, of the images are quite humorous adding to the enjoyment. Young and old will enjoy will enjoy this book!
Regarding the ongoing, though likely diminishing, debate about Pluto's status, I liked his statement, "You're having an argument over something you generate rather than what is fundamental to the universe." Science is about organization of objective discoveries, and subjective views should always play a subordinate roll. This includes those warm fuzzies we feel for certain traditional views, including Pluto's prior rank as planet. Science is not about a consensus of our feelings, but whether or not quality science is being conducted. Dr. Tyson presents the objective evidence of both sides fairly, and gives lucid reasoning for his position, which I suspect most scientifically-minded folks will eventually concur with his views.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This colorful, funny book tells the story of the backwards growth of Pluto the one-time planet. It is told with wit and sensitivity by the perpetrator of Pluto's downsizing, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson. It is a terrific read, full of history, culture, politics, hurt feelings and of course science. There is even a happy ending of sorts.
The book itself surprised the heck out of me. I was expecting an interesting story, probably presented in a dry, text-only way. The riveting plot is certainly there, but The Pluto Files is also full of color, jokes, cartoons, illustrations and photos both historical and current.
It starts at the beginning, when the planet Pluto was discovered in 1930 and named by an 11-year-old girl for the god of the underworld. Not long after, a press release issued by Mickey Mouse announces: "Walt decided that I should have a pet and we decided on a dog. All the writers at Disney tried to come up with a name. We tried the `Rovers' and the `Pals' but none seemed to fit. Then one day, Walt came by and said, how about Pluto the Pup? And that's what it's been ever since."
Full disclosure: Pluto is my paws-down favorite Disney character, and I have always associated the planet with the pup. I picture it romping and galumphing out there, at the far end of its leash.
Apparently I was not the only Pluto-lover dismayed when Tyson demoted Pluto the planet to Pluto the icy rock. The Pluto Files chronicles the uproar that followed the downgrade, including everything from media reports to actual letters written by third-grade students to cartoons. My favorite shows Star Wars Yoda declaring: "If landing a spaceship on it you can, a planet in my books it is."
It all ends well in 2006 when Pluto was officially granted "Dwarf Planet" status.
What a fun book!
Here's the chapter list:
1. Pluto in Culture
2. Pluto in History
3. Pluto in Science
4. Pluto's Fall from Grace
5. Pluto Divides the Nation
6. Pluto's Judgment Day
7. Pluto the Dwarf Planet
8. Pluto in the Elementary School Classroom: A personal recommendation for educators
For kicks, and a reminder of just how great Disney's Pluto really is, check out Walt Disney Treasures - The Complete Pluto, Volume One and Walt Disney Treasures - The Complete Pluto, Volume Two.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2011
Book Review: "The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet" by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2009 WW Norton and Co., NY 194 pp)
By Mark J. Palmer
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
Who knew that Astronomy could be this much fun?
Author Neil deGrasse Tyson, as head of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium in New York, found himself in a bizarre tug-of-war over the status of Pluto, which is either our ninth planet or just another rock in far space, depending on your partisan leanings. Tyson's book, "The Pluto Files", describes the media circus around the surprise controversy.
It all started innocently enough. In a new exhibit, the Hayden Planetarium designers decided to look at our solar system in a different way, showcasing the four innermost rocky planets as being very similar, and then combining the four outer gassy planets as another "species" of planet. Pluto was odd man out, although described in another part of the exhibit. Pluto's mass is less than 5 percent of Mercury, for example, and made up of both ice and rock in its cold orbit. It most closely resembles the other asteroids and comets it shares space with, and increasingly larger and larger rocks (some actually bigger than Pluto) began to be discovered by astronomers.
The new Hayden exhibit opened in 2000, but Pluto's supposed demotion was pretty much ignored until an enterprising reporter for the New York Times wrote a story in 2001, which quickly flashed around the world and caused considerable consternation in some quarters. What was Pluto?
The controversy raged for several years, supposedly put to bed in 2006 when the official International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006 decided that Pluto was no longer a planet, but a "dwarf planet". Tyson notes that part of the problem is that the scientific community has never really defined "planet", so whether Pluto was or was not a planet really begged the question - what precisely is a planet?
Of course, generations of school kids have learned that Pluto was our ninth planet. They inundated Tyson and the planetarium with e-mails and letters. Politics even entered the discussion, as the state of New Mexico, home to the late discoverer of Pluto, passed a law that Pluto was a planet and established "Pluto Planet Day". Even the state of California got into the act, as the home legislature of Disneyland condemned the decision by the IAU to demote Pluto. (Good thing the IAU did not take on Mickey Mouse?)
Tyson carefully walks through the scientific issues raised by Pluto and its status, while including cartoons, examples of "Pluto hate mail" and other documents about the controversy. It is, as the saying goes, a teachable moment, and Tyson does an excellent job of outlining how science works and defining the issues in some detail. Yet, he makes all the scientific jargon accessible, and The Pluto Files is a great read about science and the love of the people for their astronomical icons.
You may perhaps read a better science book, but none will be as funny as Tyson's "The Pluto Files", guaranteed.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2011
What was the biggest story of 2006? The arrest of the shampoo bombers in England? Small fries. The first World Baseball Classic? YAWN! The death of Don Knotts? Nothin'.
No, as interesting as they were, none of these generated nearly as much public interest and argument as the much ballyhooed "demotion" of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union in August of 2006. Poor little Pluto, hanging out there on the edge of the solar system, got bumped down to "Dwarf Planet," rousing much ire from people all across the United States. And, in a way, Neil deGrasse Tyson bears some responsibility for it.
To be fair, stripping Pluto of its designation as a planet was never on his agenda. No matter what angry elementary school students may have thought, Tyson had no beef against Pluto. It was just that Pluto had the bad fortune to be an oddball planet, and Tyson was working on the redesign of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whether he wanted to or not - and I'm pretty sure he didn't - he became the public face of this issue, one which gripped the country.
That in itself is weird. Americans are not the most scientifically literate of people. Sure, we like to use the fruits of science, but most people don't really pay attention to things like astronomy unless it's a shuttle launch or a pretty Hubble picture. What's more, the public in general has never really gotten involved in matters of taxonomy. If you went up to someone and said, "Hey, the scientific community is thinking about revising the nomenclature regarding the classification of anaerobic bacteria," they'd probably just walk away swiftly, looking back a few times to make sure the crazy person isn't following them. But tell them that the IAU is planning to demote Pluto, and what you have is a firestorm.
This book is not so much about Pluto itself, but our relationship with that weird little ball of ice and rock. Tyson takes us through our history with Pluto, from its discovery back in 1930 to its demotion in 2006, and tries to figure out just what it is that has endeared it so to the American public.
One possibility, of course, is the fact that Pluto was an American discovery. Percival Lowell was the one to start the hunt, and Clyde Tombaugh finally found it. While the name was suggested by a teenage British girl, everything else about the discovery of Pluto was American, and that was a point of pride. There were only three non-Classical planets in the heavens, and we had claim to one of them. So even if the average American doesn't know the history of Pluto's discovery, we still have a certain love for it.
Despite its diminutive size, Pluto has loomed large in the American imagination. Perhaps there's something of the underdog love in there, too. Americans love to see the little guy win, and if you look at a lot of the pro-Pluto artwork from 2006, the theme of big planets ganging up on a little one was very popular. As odd as this perception might seem from a scientific standpoint, I think a lot of Americans were supporting Pluto because it was being pushed down by The Man, as it were.
And so the country went a little nuts. Newspapers, blogs, websites - even sports reporting got in their digs on the Pluto controversy. There was something for everyone in this story, and everyone who could manage a Pluto reference did so with gusto. It was a mixed blessing, to be sure - the American public was finally excited about astronomy, but it was the excitement of a bar fight, rather than the highbrow intellectualism that many astronomers might have preferred.
What was also interesting about this book was the look at the professional arguments that went on as well. Dispelling the dispassionate image of the astronomer, professionals got really worked up about this, on both sides of the issue. Grown men and women, many of whom were well-versed in many aspects of astronomy, spoke passionately about Pluto. Some called on our sense of tradition and cultural memory, acknowledging that while Pluto may be an oddball, he's our oddball. Others were more than happy to throw Pluto into the Kuiper Belt with the other icy mudballs.
So often, Science is assumed to be some monolithic entity that describes the world with a unanimity of voice. It is supposed to be dispassionate and rational, and we don't really think about the reality of scientific progress. To use the analogy often given to marriage, science is like a duck - stately and sure on the surface, but with a whole lot of work going on down below. The history of science is full of more passion, debate and anger than you might suspect. In order to decide the issue, symposiums were convened, meetings were held, and finally the International Astronomical Union was forced to do something that had never occurred to anyone before: precisely define what is and is not a planet.
In case you're wondering, the definition is quite simple: It has to orbit the sun, be big enough to have attained a spherical shape, and it has to have cleared out its orbit. Pluto fulfills the first two requirements, but badly fails the third. Therefore, it is not a planet. They created a new designation: dwarf planet, including Ceres in the asteroid belt and Haumea, Makemake and Eris out past Pluto. The public may not like it, but that's how it is.
Tyson points out that this is not the first time we have done such a reclassification. With the discovery in the mid-19th century of objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, a new class had to be invented in order to keep the number of planets from rocketing into the thousands - and so asteroids were born. The Pluto case is quite similar. Long after Pluto was discovered, more objects, similar in nature, were discovered nearby - some even bigger than Pluto was. The region of rock and ice was named the Kupier Belt, and if Pluto were discovered today, it would most certainly be named as part of it. As much as it pains me to say it, the decision to reclassify Pluto was the right one. At least Tyson and I have revised the Planet Mnemonic the same way: My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nachos.
The rise and fall of Pluto is an interesting story, and a lesson for science educators. No matter how bad it may seem for science in the United States, people can still be surprisingly passionate about scientific topics. It's also a warning against resistance to change. With all that we are learning about the Solar System, to just rattle off a list of planets and be done with it is insufficient. There are so many other ways to look at it now, so many ways to group the hundreds of bodies out there, that perhaps Pluto is more comfortable out with the other Trans-Neptunian objects. With its own kind, as it were, instead of being shoehorned in with eight other guys that it doesn't really have anything in common with.
Ultimately, of course, Pluto doesn't care what we call it. That point was often made on both sides of the argument, and they're right. We could call it Lord Snuggypants the Fourth and it would keep doing what it does out there in the cold and the dark. But it's important for us, and not just because science needs things to be organized so we know what we're talking about. Being able to reclassify Pluto is an indication of the breadth of our knowledge - had we not made such progress, Pluto's classification would never have been in doubt.
The "demotion" of Pluto is a sign of our amazing achievements over the last eighty years. We have not lost a planet - we have gained understanding. So in the end, the Great Pluto Debate is one that we should look back upon fondly.
"It's always a little scary when the person who hired you calls you up and asks, "What have you done?!"
- Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Pluto Files
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Neil Degrasse Tyson has chosen a good topic here, and one on which he has special insight -- Pluto holds a special fascination for Americans, so a history of its discovery, naming, cultural impact, and demotion of its planet, can be good fun. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has proven himself to be a good educator and popularizer of science, and his design of exhibits at the Rose Planetarium in New York was at the heart of the recent 'demotion' of Pluto, so this was an appropriate project for him.
The book contains some history, some history-of-science, and presents the arguments convinced Degrasse Tyson that Pluto had to be demoted (in essence, if Pluto was a planet, we either had to (1) welcome a handful of other space rocks into the family or (2) devise a complex and tortured definition of 'planet' to justify their exclusion).
Science is often presented as a dispassionate topic, but people reacted strongly to the decision. Not just laypeople, even many earth and space scientists felt that Pluto just *ought* to be a planet. The things we learn as children hold a powerful sway over our world views, even in the face of compelling evidence they are wrong.
The book is not perfect, though. Tyson seems to have included just about all the pop cultural trivia about Pluto he could find, even if it is boring and forgettable. For example, while it was nice to read about Venetia Burney, the 11-year-old girl who initially proposed the name "Pluto," do we really need to know her married name and later career and the town to which she ultimately retired? And while the origins of the Disney character Pluto are fun to read, why the discussion of the fact that Pluto is Mickey's dog, but Mickey is not Pluto's mouse?
I caught more than one who/whom error and other mistakes.
So a decent book, but not a great one.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2009
Most of you probably have heard that "they decided" that Pluto was no longer a planet. If you've read newspaper articles behind the meme, you probably know of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium. Plutocrats say that he is most responsible for "demoting" Pluto. In this breezy, well-written book, Tyson explains how this all happened.
When he was appointed the director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson decided to construct the Rose Center, an exhibit of the solar system. It opened in early 2000, with Pluto absent from the "objects in the solar system" part of the exhibit. At first, this didn't draw much public attention. But in January 2001, a New York Times reporter was at the Planeterium and overheard a kid ask his mother where Pluto was, and realized he had a story. The headline on January 23, 2001 was "Pluto Not a Planet? Only in New York." After that Tyson's e-mail inbox was flooded with e-mails. The response was so huge that he felt compelled to offer an official media reply a few weeks later. To this day, many people stubbornly cling to Pluto's Planethood.
So what's the background on all of this? Let's start with how we have thought of "planets." There has not been a clear definition of planet since Ancient Greece, when the first astronomers called the celestial bodies that moved in the sky "planetis," or wanderers. But with the work of Copernicus and Galileo, we found out that Earth in fact moves around the Sun, putting us in the same category as Mars, Jupiter, and the rest. Eventually, everyone just silently agreed that whatever was round and not a moon was a planet. In the 19th century, astronomers discovered some new objects beyond Mars that they thought were planets but turned out to be asteroids. Fast-forward to the beginning of the 20th century. Astronomers were searching for the mysterious "Planet X" beyond Neptune, because something had to account for the anomalies in Neptune's gravitation. In 1930, the American Clyde Tombaugh from New Mexico discovered the trans-Neptune Planet, and it was named "Pluto." It was the same year, incidentally, that the Disney character of the same name was introduced. Since then, the traditional way of learning about the solar system in classrooms has been memorizing the names of the planets, often through a mneumonic device.
Ultimately, Tyson does not think this approach is plausible. In the 1990s, a new "swath of real estate" was discovered beyond Pluto, and was called the Kuiper Belt. It included many comets, asteroids, and planet-like objects. The bottom line is that the Kuiper Belt is debris left over from the formation of the solar system, and since Pluto orbits like a comet, Tyson thought it better to group Pluto as the first object in the Kuiper Belt. Essentially, Tyson wanted people to think about the solar system as families of objects with similar objects- the Terrestrial Planets (Earth, Mars, Mercury, Venus), the Jovian Planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune), the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud.
In August 2006, the International Astronomical Union finally decided to vote on a definition of a Planet- An object that is spherical from its own gravitational force, orbits a star, does not orbit another planet, will not turn into a supernova by itself, and has cleared its neighboring debris. A dwarf planet is a planet that has the same characteristics of a planet, but has not cleared its neighboring debris. Since Pluto clearly has lots of neighboring debris, it is a dwarf planet. Tyson is OK with this, but he believes that pedagogically, the best way to learn about the solar system is to teach the things that make it interesting- such as the storms on Jupiter and Venus, the formation of Mars, etc. Since more "dwarf planets" are likely to be found in the Kuiper Belt, if we stick with the traditional method, teachers will be saying, "OK class, we have 3 more planets to memorize." Isn't that a great way to learn about the cosmos? No.
There is so much more in "The Pluto Files," such as the inner workings of the IAU, the history of American's love affair with Pluto (the Planet and the Dog), the hate mail Tyson received from 3rd-graders, tongue-in-cheek resolutions from state legislatures, and humorous political cartoons. It makes as a great coffee table book, and is a good read for science lovers of all ages, I think. Most important, "The Pluto Files" shows the ever-growing, changing body of scientific knowledge, and the public's often-misguided response to it.