- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (January 24, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385531109
- ISBN-13: 978-0385531108
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 218 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,243 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming Reprint Edition
Use the Amazon App to scan ISBNs and compare prices.
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
A Letter from Author Mike Brown
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
This is not to say that the book has no merit. Reading it reminded me of being confronted by a stranger at a bus terminal long ago, who told me a story of uncanny experiences, bad luck, perseverance, kindness, and hope. There were small parts of his story that didn't quite make sense, but overall I was spellbound. In the end he asked for a few dollars to make a critical phone call, and the spell was suddenly broken. I said "no." My companion said "yes."
How I Killed Pluto... starts off as a wonderful read. At the kitchen table, right after we'd brought the book home, I read aloud the Prologue and the first few pages to my wife and 15 year old son. We quickly were drawn into a story. Brown describes personal experiences, such as living in a cabin, meeting his future wife, going on their honeymoon, the gestation and birth of his first child, confrontations with bloggers and with fellow scientists, and other adventures. Sometimes the author broods under the dome of a famous telescope.
References to science seem to be thrown in to provide a nice title, give the story a little flavor, and make sure that the protagonist appears very successful at some chosen profession. The style of writing is contemporary with lots of m-dashes and sentences that start with "and."
For this reader the spell was broken on Page 19, as I read,
"And it is no wonder that all our basic units of time are based on the sky..."
Most scientists know that the basic unit of time is the second, and its astronomical connections were severed more than 50 years ago. Now the unit of one second is defined in terms of oscillations of the caesium 133 atom, and the story behind this changing definition is a fascinating one.
The book continues with
"...A year traced the time it took for the sun to go all the way around the sky to reappear at the same location again..."
The description is for what is called the sidereal year, and it differs from what is known as the tropical or solar year that we use in our ordinary calendars. The error strikes me as an odd mistake for an astronomer to make. Again, the author missed an opportunity to explain aspects of his field that are relevant to the life of the average reader. For example, when the earth makes one complete revolution around the sun, the earth will not have rotated an integral number of times about its own axis.
Next are the sentences,
"The seven days of the week are even named after the seven original planets. Sunday, Mo[o]nday, and Satur[n]day are the most obvious, while Tuesday through Friday are more than a bit obscure. Tiw was an ancient Germanic god of war, as Mars was to the Romans, so Tuesday is actually Mars's (sic) day."
I believe this represents speculation rather than a logical conclusion. Just because a word's origin can be found in the name of an ancient Germanic god of war and the Romans called a similar god "Mars," the related day of the week might or might not be named for a planet that is also called Mars.
Reading further I saw,
"Wednesday is Woden's day. Woden was the carrier of the dead --a Germanic grim reaper--fulfilling one of Mercury's less well known jobs."
I'm skeptical about the validity of the connection made by Roman writers between the Germanic god Wotan (in various forms) and the Roman god Mercury. Even if such a connection could be made between gods, that does not prove that Wednesday was named for a planet.
Perhaps the most blatant error is contained in the sentence,
"Thor was the Norse king of the gods, like Jupiter, and Friday is the day of Venus in the guise of the Norse Frigga, the goddess of married love."
The proposition that Thor was the "Norse King of the gods" will be noted as an error both by scholars of Norse Mythology familiar with the Prose Edda and probably by anyone who has read Stan Lee in the Marvel Comic Thor. Thor is not even the ruler of Asgard. That is the role of his father, Odin.
Frigg (the more proper name for Frigga) was Odin's wife. The Norse name for the planet Venus was Friggjarstjarna which can be translated as 'Frigg's star'. Saying that Friday is named for the goddess Frigg is different from saying it is named for Frigg's star or a planet. In addition there is some doubt as to whether "Friday" refers to Frigg or to a different god, Freya. Some authors have suggested that Frigg and Freya were the same god.
Within a single page of the book my feelings had gone from enjoyment and trust to wondering whether or not anything I read was true. Had the editor not fact-checked the manuscript? Of course, I had no easy way to determine the validity of the personal stories that were related.
I continued on. After all, it was a pretty good story even if only fiction.
I winced at grammatical and typographical errors and plodded on. Inconsistencies appeared. For example, Dr. Brown describes a photographic plate as "missing" on Page 69. Later in the book he refers, without further explanation, to using the plate in his work.
Other errors were harder to overlook. On page 74 I read
"I was flying out to Hawaii to use one of the the (sic) Keck telescopes--the largest telescopes in the world--to take a first really good look at Object X."
Certainly a professional astronomer who regularly used large telescopes would know about the larger 10.4 meter Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) built between 2006 and 2009 and the larger 11.9 meter Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) built in 2004. The Keck telescopes on Hawaii are 10 meter instruments.
More discrepancies turned up. The issue of care and scholarship turned out to be systemic.
I found the most interesting and disturbing idea on pages 242-243. Here Mike Brown states that he would never write down a precise definition of "planet." Instead he believes that there should be only an imprecise description of the concept of a planet. Essentially he worries that a precise written definition is legalistic, flawed, and would require adjudication for any conflict regarding its application that might arise.
What is so disturbing to me about this point of view is that it suggests that the author does not understand that the imprecise concepts that he holds so dear are also flawed. There are flaws in all of our definitions and concepts, and I believe discussions about these flaws are important. Having nothing written in precise form tends to hide important issues.
Dr. Brown introduces additional concepts that relate to the definition of a planet.
They include the concept of a planet "dominating a planetary system" and the concept of "clearing the neighborhood around an object's orbit." His failure to make these concepts more precise leads to confusion and misunderstanding.
I have no real issue with someone trying to write a popular book. Popularizing astronomy could help forge a vital connection between scientific research and the lay reader. What saddens me, however, is to witness the popularity of books that ostensibly are about science but that fail to communicate either what science is really about or the joy one can experience by engaging in scientific endeavors. Books that accurately portray scientific investigation could encourage children to explore careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.
Such books are available, even if they are not so well known. As examples, I would recommend anything written by Richard Feynman, Bernd Heinrich, or Donald Kroodsma.
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. This saved the researchers' very limited time on the "big guns" (the 200" Palomar, the Keck, and the Hubble) for the luxury of the occasional urgent zoom-shot that might, if lucky, discover a moon or even methane.
The Keck (twin-telescope observatory on Mauna Kea) session is particularly interesting. If you have a vague idea of adaptive optics, and idly thought about learning more by reading the Wikipedia entry (oh, be my guest :-), you might instead pick this book up. Luckily for us inquiring amateurs, Mike Brown's team needed quick access to one of the Kecks, so they had to accept a night when the real purpose of the evening was to test and calibrate the new "laser reference star" for the adaptive optics system. In the space of a page or so, we get to understand the concept well enough to take on a Congressional investigation committee, or at the very least a cocktail party.
There is hard science in here, but "hard" simply means solid, not difficult: everything that needs explained gets very clear treatment indeed. Need to get a hands-on sense of how far away these strange objects are? All you need is a sheet of paper, a quarter, a pencil, and page 100 of this book. You will also learn that the team's concurrent discovery of another distant orbital object (Sedna, including its satellite, its strange orbit and its debris-field), has led to a basic (and ongoing) re-think of the birth of the Solar System. It would have been nice if this angle, which doubtless has much more astronomical significance than the discovery of "the 10th planet", had been gone into in more detail. But if the book leaves you wanting more astronomy, the good news is that you can get regular (and fascinating) updates by subscribing to (Amazon doesn't allow external link addresses, so take the following as a broad hint) mike browns planets dot com.
Enough astronomy; back to sign-language: Intertwined in all this are his interactions with co-workers and his utterly-geeky and hilarious approach to birth-anxiety and child-rearing. If you are a new parent, you may laugh at his obsession about graphing birth-dates and everything else in obsessive detail. All fine and well, but what might really grab you is his idea that, instead of waiting for your child to develop verbal ability, you instead deliberately teach the concepts of sign-language. For example: if you're about to turn on a light, hold a fist high above your head, then as you flip the light-switch, open your fingers. You may eventually be rewarded by a pre-verbal child, bothered by the moon going behind a cloud, instructing you to bring it back by using the same gesture: Mike Brown was. (Unluckily for his daughter's developing world-view, the moon immediately obliged.)
How tough a book is it? When I finished, I sent it to my 13-year-old son, who swallowed it in one gulp, accompanied by loud belching.
So why not five stars? Easy: I'd just finished "The Double Helix."