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How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming Hardcover – December 7, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 161 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A Letter from Author Mike Brown

My daughter Lilah, now five years old, is mad at me for killing Pluto. When I began a project 13 years ago to chart the slowly-moving objects of the distant outer solar system, my goal was never to pull Pluto off of its cherished planetary pedestal. I wanted to be a planet discoverer, like William Herschel or Clyde Tombaugh before me. I had a strong feeling that somewhere out there something bigger than Pluto was lurking, and I knew that whoever found it would get to claim the mantle as the only living planet discoverer.

I was right. Something bigger than Pluto was out there (or at least something more massive than Pluto; sizes are a little harder to pin down precisely) and one January morning in 2005, my small team of astronomers and I found it. We announced the discovery of the 10th planet to an unsuspecting world late on the afternoon of Lilah’s 22nd day of life. A little after her first birthday, though, the doors to the planetary club were locked and Pluto and my own discovery were kicked out on the curb. The solar system was down to only eight planets.

It was hard not to mourn the loss of my now ex-planet, except for the fact that I had to admit that kicking it out was the most scientifically sensible thing to happen to planetary classification since asteroids were also kicked out almost 200 years ago. The solar system is a beautiful and profound place, and it is made richer with the realization that the eight planets are the foundation throughout which countless smaller bodies continuously swirl.

When Pluto was first demoted, people said to me, “What about the children? How could you do this to them?” But, in fact, children live lives that are always changing. It’s the adults who have had the hardest time reconciling the new understanding of the solar system with what they remember from when they themselves were children. So, it made sense that I used to joke about what would happen the moment when Lilah first learned about the solar system. She would come home, and I would say, “Tell me all about the eight planets,” and when I would try to tell her about the olden times when we used to think there were nine—or even ten!—planets, she would slowly shake her head and exclaim, “Daddy, adults are so stupid.”

But I was wrong.

Lilah knows all about Pluto. She has a stuffed dog, a planet lunch box, a solar system place mat at the dinner table. She feels as warmly towards the ice ball as someone ten times her age, and, like many of those older people, she is mad at the person who killed it. Lilah, though, has a solution. She recently told me, “Daddy, I know that you had to kill Pluto, but will you promise me one thing?”

“Of course,” I said.

“You have to go find another planet, and when you do, you have to name it Pluto for me, OK?”

So my search of the skies continues.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Though several reviewers admitted a grudge against Brown for picking off plucky underdog Pluto, they found his memoir a charming account of a scientist’s life and work. Given Brown’s popularity as an instructor and lecturer at Caltech, it is perhaps unsurprising that his book is accessible and enlightening. Critics were less certain about Brown’s decision to include so much of his personal life in the book. None actually said that Brown’s interludes about becoming a husband and father detracted from his story, but a few asked what they really added. Others, though, felt that this personal perspective perfectly rounded out Brown’s account of how he and his discoveries reshaped the solar system.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; 1st edition (December 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385531087
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385531085
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (161 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #325,878 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Nick VINE VOICE on September 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Thanks to Mike Brown, two of my childhood illusions have been shattered: Pluto is no longer a planet, and Astronomy isn't a riveting, exciting science as I thought it would be.

Mike Brown is a CalTech astronomer who has been looking for objects past Pluto and found over a dozen of them. That's where the problem lies. Most of objects are half the size of Pluto, and Eris is about 25% bigger than Pluto. So it stands to reason that either Eris is our new 10th planet in the solar system, or since it behaves a bit strangely like Pluto, then Pluto isn't a planet (since it moves in an irregular orbit, etc.) The logic makes sense, and Dr. Brown explains it from both sides and fully understands that growing up, all of us learned that Pluto was a planet, and that changing that would result in uproar. He's fair and balanced in his logic and reasoning and explains it very well.

Dr. Brown doesn't romance the life of the astronomer: they work odd hours, have to deal with weather, the moon, long hours poured over maps and plates to determine if objects move or not. They're obsessive creatures with understanding spouses (Dr. Brown mentions his spouse a lot, who sounds like a great person and adds "Astronomy wives" to the long list of suffering spouses who deal with a spouse with a crazy profession.)

There's an interesting background to what it means to actually discover something. I didn't know that there was a proper naming nomenclature behind finding objects. Giving Eris the original name of Xena (after the "Warrior Princess" TV show) lead to vigorous discussion. If it was a Kuiper belt object, then it should be named after a creation deity.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Who will be interested in this book? Astronomy buffs, of course, science historians, every last geek alive, people who enjoy really good writing, and (surprisingly) also anxious new parents.

By coincidence, Amazon delivered this book just as I was re-visiting perhaps the best scientific discovery book ever written: The Double Helix, so I had the Gold Standard fresh in my mind as I dove into this one.

Mike Brown is a good writer. There are three separate stories in here. There's the discovery of the "tenth planet" and the eventual (correct) decision to instead demote Pluto, which is a fascinating tale.

Then, just when you think the fat lady is about to sing, outrageous cheating, lies, international intrigue, and clever 21st Century detective work appear out of nowhere.

And then there's what was going on in the author's life at the time, the whole back-story of how he got into astronomy, and how his discoveries affected him and his new family. All of that is an integral part of the story, and besides, you might be as amused as I was that this very bright man, quite capable of discovering planets and accurately describing how his wife and he came together, yet still somehow believes that HE was the one doing the courting.

In case you worry that the whole thing might be too touchy-feely, let's head down into the astronomy for a moment. I was delighted that the storied but almost-forgotten wide-field Schmidt telescope at Palomar (the source of the first and still-relevant star map of the Northern Hemisphere) became the workhorse of the whole endeavour.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
as "Soul of a New Machine" was to the birth of the "small computer" revolution. I thought it would be a fun bedtime read for a week or two . . . instead it kept me awake until I was done. Previous reviews have explained the story well enough . . . I'll just add a vote that it's a great, fun read . . .
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming / 978-0385531085

Like many people, I watched with interest the 2006 showdown that culminated in the announcement that Pluto was no longer a "planet". I'd been taught since childhood that Pluto was a planet, and in some ways it seemed a little sad for it to be stripped of its status. Ultimately, however, the decision seemed reasonable given what very little I knew of the situation. The year came and went, Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" (a category it would share with several other small bodies), and life went on. When this book came available on Amazon Vine, I was quick to snatch it up because I was sure the in-depth story would be interesting, but if you had told me at the time that I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning madly turning pages as fast as I could read, them I would have been skeptical to say the least.

"How I Killed Pluto" is a truly delightful read, and a wonderful page-turner. Professor of planetary astronomy and author Mike Brown writes in a distinctly clear and clever manner, and the science on display here is astonishingly easy to follow - if Dr. Brown teaches as clearly as he writes, then it must be a delight to be one of his students. The book follows Brown's discoveries of several bodies in our solar system, including the "tenth planet" (for a very short time, at least!) Eris, as well as his increasingly firm opinion that the objects he is discovering are not truly planets - and, by extension, neither can be Pluto.

It's surprising to see someone with so much to gain from a looser planetary definition (as Eris' discoverer, Brown would be the only living human being to discover a planet!
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