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The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet Hardcover – January 26, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
From Pluto's 1930 discovery to the emotional reaction worldwide to its demotion from planetary status, astrophysicist, science popularizer and Hayden Planetarium director deGrasse Tyson (Death by Black Hole) offers a lighthearted look at the planet. Astronomical calculations predicted the presence of a mysterious and distant Planet X decades before Clyde Tombaugh spotted it in 1930. DeGrasse Tyson speculates on why straw polls show Pluto to be the favorite planet of American elementary school students (for one, Pluto sounds the most like a punch line to a hilarious joke). But Pluto's rock and ice composition, backward rotation and problematic orbit raised suspicions. As the question of Pluto's nature was being debated by scientists, the newly constructed Rose Center for Earth and Space at the Hayden Planetarium quietly but definitively relegated Pluto to the icy realm of Kuiper Belt Objects (cold, distant leftovers from the solar system's formation), raising a firestorm. Astronomers discussed and argued and finally created an official definition of what makes a planet. This account, if a bit Tyson-centric, presents the medicine of hard science with a sugarcoating of lightness and humor. 35 color and 10 b&w illus. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
[A] lighthearted look at the planet....[P]resents the medicine of hard science with a sugarcoating of lightness and humor. --Publishers Weekly --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The main controversy came when a new Planetarium that Tyson was working with decided to not include Pluto in their displays of the "planets" of our solar system. The main reason was because they were not convinced that Pluto can hold planetary status.
Our solar system has four Terrestrial planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Then it has what are classified as Jovian (gas giants) planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. That left Pluto out on it's own as an Ice Ball in space, not fitting with either of the two main classifications of planets.
There is a good discussion about how Pluto was originally discovered and then excellent material describing how with increasing sophistication of equipment that Pluto was downgraded in size several times, taking it from a large planet to a small "ice rock" in space.
Then the discovery of the Kuipter belt of asteroids sent another frenzy through the astronomy community. There were items out there as big as Pluto that also had a somewhat regular orbit around the sun. So what to do?
The answer is very interesting and I am particularly interested in their diagram of figure 4.9 on page 91 which shows 8 "dwarf" planets (including Pluto). One is larger than Pluto and six are smaller. But they are all past Neptune and have orbits.
So, I was left with do we have 8 planets in our solar system or do we have 16 planets? That is an interesting question.
You'll need to read to find out the answer.
Taken all together this was a very fascinating book.
As we all know Pluto is no longer considered a planet and Neil DeGrasse Tyson might have helped Pluto’s demise as a planet with the construction of the Hayden Sphere at the Hayden Planetarium. Until recently there was no formal definition of what a planet is and that presented a problem for the involved scientists and for Pluto. The book tells you about how Pluto was conflated with Planet X, how it shrunk in size as more became known about Pluto, how it’s orbit is unusually eccentric, and that it has not sufficiently cleared its orbit of debris, and that it could be considered to be just the largest known Kuiper belt object, and that Pluto was not named after Mickey Mouse’s dog (but rather the other way around). Neil DeGrasse Tyson is of the opinion that Pluto should not be called a planet, but his view is nuanced and based on science, and he is not taking himself too seriously. He is fair, and he tells us about the problem with humor and with respect for all viewpoints. He gives us an overview of the various discussions and opinions that scientists had on the topic, including that of Alan Stern, the man behind the New Horizons project, and a graduate from the school my son just graduated from.
Unlike Dr. Tyson, I am not an expert on the topic, but even after reading this book, I find myself not entirely convinced. What is a Planet is about how to label something. In addition to scientific considerations it is also culture, and therefore the view of the public matters. The alternative definition of a planet as a body circling the sun that is in hydrostatic equilibrium (big enough to squeeze itself into a ball) is also quite intuitive. I don’t think it is bad if Ceres comes back as planet, or if there are dozens of other Kuiper belt objects that will be called planets. That’s just exciting. Then you could actually impress someone by knowing all the planets. One thing that was not discussed in the book was how this is related to exo-planets. What shall we do with large exo-planets that have not cleared their orbit of debris? That’s another reason I think we might not have heard the last of this yet.
In any case, the book has lots of nice pictures, comical anecdotes, lots of interesting information and discussions, and it is a concise and entertaining read. Therefore I recommend this book.