Authors vote 2-1 against Pluto

Authors of what I call the “Pluto Trilogy” vote 2-1 against planethood for the distant icy world. I just completed reading three recent books about Pluto: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown, Caltech astronomer and discoverer of Eris; The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York; and The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference by Alan Boyle, science editor for MSNBC.com and author of Cosmic Log.

Research scientists sometimes turn out prose that isn’t accessible for the non-Ph.D. In How I Killed Pluto Brown, however, weaves an entertaining, witty, and sometimes poetic tale about the years of work that went into the discovery of Eris, a Kuiper Belt object thought to be just a little bigger than Pluto. One need not be an astronomer to appreciate the detailed account of the search for the “tenth planet”, nor a detective to appreciate Brown’s story of the controversy surrounding credit for the discovery of Haumea, now the fourth-largest known dwarf planet in our solar system. The interweaving of stories about Brown’s personal life during the hunt are endearing.

One could not have faulted Brown for holding out for full planet status for Pluto. That would have given him status as discoverer of the tenth planet. As a scientist, though, he believes Eris and Pluto have more in common with the thousands of Kuiper Belt objects than they do with the big eight, and is happy to have them thought of and categorized differently.

While Brown’s discoveries forced the hand of the International Astronomical Union on establishing its controversial definition of planet, it was Tyson and the Hayden Planetarium that inadvertently ignited the Pluto debate when Eris was not even yet a dim, slow-moving glint on Brown’s computer screen.

“I keep getting blamed for Pluto,” Tyson said at a speaking engagement in Seattle last month. “Eleven years ago we opened an exhibit in New York City where we grouped Pluto with other icy brethren in the outer solar system, and the nation’s population of elementary school children got pissed off.”

The Pluto Files is full of letters from those children and cartoons from various points of view in the debate. While the actual IAU debate and vote is almost an afterthought in Brown’s book, Tyson gives it fairly detailed treatment.

Tyson said that the planetarium didn’t set out to cause trouble, but simply considered, in the design of their exhibits, the recent discoveries of thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.

“Some of them have orbital properties that greatly resemble that of Pluto,” he said during his Seattle talk. “So Pluto has brethren out there. Pluto and they look more alike, than either they or Pluto look like any of the other eight planets, and we figured it was time for Pluto to own up to its actual identity.”

Oddly enough, the exhibit was up and running for almost a year without a peep before the New York Times finally took notice and ran a front-page article lamenting that Pluto wasn’t a planet, at least in New York. The mail barrage was on.

Boyle is the most sympathetic to Pluto. In my coverage of his talk here last year, I wrote, “Alan Boyle thinks Pluto should be considered a planet, but ultimately believes a lot of people are taking the question way too seriously.”

The Case for Pluto delves deepest into the IAU deliberations, and includes text of all of the various resolutions about the definition of planet. It’s a great read, full of humorous observations about the personalities involved and the gyrations people go to in order to come to grips with their Pluto issues.

All three books are engaging reads and highly recommended for those interested in Pluto and the solar system. They’re not likely to be the last words, either. Bloggers know that Pluto generates a lot of hits, and publishers are surely watching to see how many books the dwarf planet will sell.

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