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How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming Paperback – Jan 24 2012
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“Brims with humor and charm . . . exhilarating.”—Los Angeles Times
“[An] out-of-this-world science memoir . . . brilliant . . . brings clarity and elegance to the complexities of planetary science. Brown is also a surprisingly self-effacing and entertaining genius.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Brown’s brisk, enjoyable How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming chronicles the whole saga [of the demotion of Pluto] and, in the process, makes [its] sad fate easier to take. If we’ve lost a planet, we’ve gained a sprightly new voice for popular science.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Eminently readable and entertaining . . . blends elements of sleuthing, international intrigue, and the awe and wonder intrinsic to the exploration of space.”—The Oregonian
“An unlikely hybrid of Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos and Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Brown] might be the finest scientist alive today. . . . We’re all better off for this man’s breathtaking commitment to science.”—The Boston Globe
About the Author
Mike Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. In 2006 he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World as well as one of Los Angeles magazine’s Most Influential People in L.A. He lives in Southern California with his wife and daughter.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
This highly accessible and captivating book should be of interest to anyone, particularly science buffs as well as those wanting to know the inside story of why Pluto was demoted as it was - and this from a scientist who had a front row seat.
Brown, the son of a rocket-man, grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. Always interested in science in general, and astronomy in particular, he earned his PH.d and was hired by Caltech in Pasadena. For many years he was the proverbial free academic spirit who taught and looked at the sky, night after night, always savoring the dark nights of the moon's orbit. Between teaching and researching, he spent a lot of time searching the skies using telescopes in world-wide locations, trying to find "the tenth planet". In the early 2000's he meets a woman, falls in love, marries, and produces a child - a girl called Lilah. But during those years, he also produced two or three "maybe planets" - out past Neptune, close to the Kuiper Belt. Were they planets? What's the definition of a planet? Did the three "masses" he finds after years of patient searching deserve the title of "planet"? And, while we're at it, does the ninth planet, Pluto, deserve the title "planet"? After a few years, and Brown's contribution to the astronomical academic circles, certain determinations on the definition of "planet" are decided, and are a bittersweet accompaniment to Mike Brown's life.
Brown's combination of the personal and the professional parts of his life are told well in his book. He writes about science so well that even a science-dolt like me could understand MOST of what he writes about. That's a success in itself. It's a good read, not too long and not too heavy. Enjoy.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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. This is something that not many people are aware of, and they got bent out of shape when Brown and his group deviated from it, even with nicknames.
The writing is strong. Sometimes with books written by scientists, the narrative tends to get in the way of the science. I hope that this isn't Dr. Brown's last book, because I could see him writing more books on astronomy for wider audiences.
Overall, I'd recommend this book for people with an interest in astronomy and anyone who has an interest in why Pluto isn't a planet any longer. It's a good read for anyone who's ever dreamed beyond the planet.
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."
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!) so strongly and fervently fight for the opposition - it's abundantly clear throughout the book that Brown is devoted to what he sees as the science and 'rightness' of planetary definitions as opposed to the fame and attention that would naturally come with being a planet-finder. Indeed, if Brown's love of science and mathematics were not already abundantly clear from his frenzied search of the solar system for more planetoids, it would be clearly illustrated in his delightfully obsessive graphings of his daughter's first months of life - feeding times, feeding incidents (and who did the feeding!), sleeping times, and so much more!
And this is where enjoyment of the book may be different for some readers. Brown spends a great deal of time weaving his tale of astronomical discoveries closely to the story of his engagement and wedding to his wife and the birth of their first daughter. In some ways, these parts of the book really humanize the story and place it squarely back on earth instead of in the distant skies, but in other ways, I can see where the slow pacing and all the wacky newborn stories might drag on for some readers. The wife-and-daughter tales never detract from the story and did many times make me laugh out loud, but in some places they don't seem to add as much - particularly near the end when you're racing towards the controversial vote and you just want to see what happens.
Overall, "How I Killed Pluto" is that rare and wonderful thing: an educational and instructional book that also manages to be easy to understand and delightful to read. Brown's passion for astronomy shines through every page of the book, and it's impossible to not be infected by his joy and wonder in the solar system around us.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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