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The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet Audio CD – Audiobook, Unabridged
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
[A] lighthearted look at the planet....[P]resents the medicine of hard science with a sugarcoating of lightness and humor. --Publishers Weekly
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As the only planet discovered by an American astronomer, Pluto had become an American icon. Even Mickey Mouse’s dog bears the name. And many Americans, as well as some other folks around our planet, were not comfortable with the designation change. One man stood to receive much of the heat for re characterization of the icy Pluto. That man was Neil deGrasse Tyson, and in 2009 he described from his own point of view the path out of planet-hood that Pluto took in his book, The Pluto Files.
Earlier this year Dr. Tyson was going to be doing a lecture here in St. Louis. In anticipation of my attendance, I decided to to pick the book up.
Long before we knew of nine planets in our solar system, we had already settled on eight. In fact, Tyson starts out by pointing to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago was out-of-date the day it opened its doors. Opening only two months after the discovery of Pluto by Clyde W. Tombaugh in February of 1930, Adler had already been designed to showcase eight planets. One can still go there today and see the plaques depicting the eight planets which after 76 years of being out-of-date are finally right with the times.
I think that Tyson was pointing this out to exemplify the cost of changing our view of the universe and our solar system in particular. In reclassifying Pluto, textbooks need to be revised, museums need to be reorganized, and entire generations of people will go on without accepting it because either they do not care enough, they are unwilling to see the nuance as to why, or perhaps because of the culture surrounding our old understanding.
Mickey’s dog was far from the only part of this culture. Upon the discovery of Pluto, this new planet was an budding rock star. In 1932 a laxative known as Pluto Water hit the market. In 1941 a new element who needed a name became known as Plutonium. And of course how can anyone raised in the 80s and 90s forget that My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas? If Pluto is no longer a planet, many Plutophiles have pointed out, we have to come up with a new mnemonic. Indeed the culture of Pluto was strong and so demotion was destined to bring about controversy.
Throughout describing the history and science surrounding Pluto, Tyson helps to distinguish it from what we now define as a planet. For example, Pluto is mostly made of ice. Pluto’s moon, Charon, is so large that center of motion is between Pluto and Charon. Every other planet in the solar system has moons whose center of motion lies within the boundaries of the planet. Pluto is so small that it is less than five percent the size of mercury. Pluto also exists in the Kuiper belt along with many smaller ice balls as well as some similarly sized icy objects. Should we start calling the larger of those planets as well? For a little while some people did.
Of course Tyson was not personally or otherwise responsible for Pluto’s fall from grace. The planet had long been on the radar in a large part due to the discovery of Kuiper belt objects that were increasingly closer to Pluto’s size. What put Tyson in the crosshairs of the Plutophiles was mostly exposure due to his involvement of the design of the New York Hayden Planetarium’s Rose Center for Earth and Space. Given the climate of disagreement of how to classify Pluto among relevant scientists at the time and the permanence of the Rose Center which was to be built and opened in 2000, some presentational creativity was going to be required. Instead of an “enumeration of orbs to be memorized” (Tyson, 2009), they presented the solar system as families of objects with similar characteristics. You have the Sun, the rocky terrestrial planets, the asteroid belt, the gas giants, and the Kuiper belt. Pluto lives in the Kuiper belt.
No one really noticed that Pluto was missing from the presentations of the Rose Center until a New York Times article came out almost a year after its opening. The article was titled, “Pluto’s Not A Planet? Only In New York”. This is when the firestorm started for Tyson. In the book several humorous letters are shared from various elementary classrooms begging Dr. Tyson to make Pluto a planet again. This was probably my favorite part of the book. I never cease to be amused by the visceral reaction to those who resist a change that is so obviously needed.
Part of the problem for the IAU was that there hadn’t really been a formal definition of the term planet. Therefore, the task ahead was to formulate that definition which then included them deciding what to do if or when certain celestial bodies did not make the cut. In any event there were no longer going to be nine planets in our solar system. If Pluto made the cut, Pluto’s moon, another Kuiper belt object named Eris, and an asteroid belt object named Ceres would also have become planets. As it turned out. All four of those objects became part of a new class called dwarf planets.
For Tyson, the emails came at a rate of hundreds per day. Articles were written blasting the decision. Even many astronomers were burned by the development. But no amount of passion from the Plutophiles could reverse it. Pluto was now a dwarf planet. When I saw Dr. Tyson’s lecture a couple of months ago, he could not have put his attitude toward it better. In three words he said, “Get over it.”
The Pluto Files is a fascinating read. I hope this week as you are enjoying the new data coming from our favorite little dwarf planet, you might give this book a look.
Tyson has recently expressed the essence of his down grading position with a better compromise: Tyson now proposes to classify "rocky" planets and gas giants separately, creating three separate categories of objects that revolve around the sun: inner "terrestrial" planets, middle "gas giant" planets, and the outer "dwarf" planets. Pluto would then be a representative object for its category.
The extraordinary pictures we are just now receiving show that Pluto is much more complex than we had thought, and those pictures may cause Tyson and others to reconsider. The forthcoming "New Horizons: Rediscovering Pluto" by The Associated Press and Marcia Dunn may provide strong support for that reconsideration:
"Mankind's first close-up look at Pluto did not disappoint: The pictures showed ice mountains about as high as the Rockies and chasms on its big moon Charon that appear six times deeper than the Grand Canyon. Especially astonishing to scientists was the total absence of impact craters in a zoom-in shot of one otherwise rugged slice of Pluto. That suggests that Pluto is not the dead ice ball many people think, but is instead geologically active even now, its surface sculpted not by collisions with cosmic debris but by its internal heat. Breathtaking in their clarity, the long-awaited images were obtained by NASA's New Horizons, the unmanned spacecraft that paid a history-making flyby visit to the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015 after a journey of 9½ years and 3 billion miles. Experience the voyage to Pluto and rediscover our solar system through the photographs and reporting of The Associated Press."
Frankly, I didn't understand what the big hoopla was based on Tyson's recital of the history of Pluto. A better choice for understanding the science of Pluto is Pluto: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System by Barrie W. Jones.
A much better choice for understanding the human responses to Pluto is Pluto: New Horizons for a Lost Horizon: Astronomy, Astrology, and Mythology by Richard Grossinger and others. Check out the table of contents; it's a bit of a hodge podge but it's amazing how various the human reactions have been to this "dwarf planet"::
Dana Wilde: Pluto on the Borderlands
Richard Grossinger: Pluto and The Kuiper Belt
Richard C. Hoagland: New Horizon … for a Lost Horizon
J. F. Martel: Pluto and the Death of God
James Hillman: Hades
Fritz Bruhubner: The Mythology and Astrology of Pluto
Thomas Frick: Old Horizons
John D. Shershin: The Inquisition of Pluto
Stephan David Hewitt: Pluto and the Restoration of Soul
Jim Tibbetts: Our Lady of Pluto, the Planet of Purification
Shelli Jankowski-Smith: Love Song for Pluto
Robert Kelly: Pluto
Dinesh Raghavendra: Falling in Love with a Plutonian
Steve Luttrell: Dostoevsky's Pluto
Philip Wohlstetter: Ten Things I'd Like to Find on Pluto
Jonathan Lethem: Ten Things I'd Like to Find on Pluto
Robert Sardello: Ten Things I'd Like to Find on Pluto
Ross Hamilton: Ten Things I'd Like to Find on Pluto
College of the Atlantic Students: Ten Things I’d Like to Find on Pluto
Jeffrey A. Hoffman: What the Probe Will Find, What I’d Like It to Find
Nathan Schwartz-Salant: Ten Things I’d Like to Find on Pluto
Charley B. Murphy: The Ten Worlds of Pluto
Timothy Morton: Ten Things I’d Like to Find on Pluto & The End of the World
Robert Phoenix: My Father Pluto
Ellias Lonsdale: Pluto is the Reason We Have a Chance
Rob Brezsny: Pluto: Planet of Wealth
A bit uneven, but much more informative than Tyson's effort.
Robert C. Ross