Mike Brown led the team of scientist responsible for Pluto losing its planetary status. They discovered “Xena” (now Eris), which would have been the 10th planet had Pluto kept its status, but instead became its downfall.
It’s a fun book full of anecdotes and a good dose of personal stories. Brown in a scientist, but he’s also a husband and a father and he’s refreshingly ok with showing that side of him.
How I Killed Pluto is a great insight into the world of professional astronomy in all its glory and dullness. It’s all very exciting discovering a new planet, but let’s not forget the mind-numbing hours following tiny dots of light in endless image-stills to figure out if they’re moving.
Brown gets extra brownie points for acknowledging that scientific discoveries are never accomplished in isolation. Instead, he presents it as the work of many very bright and very creative risk-takers swimming against the tide of a long-established dogma. Add to that the academic rivalries (Brown even has an evil nemesis, The Spanish Professor who tried to steal his discovery Muahahaha!) and you have a very entertaining science book.
By the end I felt really curious about the day-to-day life implications of downgrading a planet. For instance, how long did it take for school books to make the change? Did some of them include an errata sheet? How did science museums update their exhibitions. Was there a PhD student on the brink of finishing a thesis on Pluto that had to re-write the whole thing? What about astrology, will Pluto in my 1st House no longer mean I “radiate intensity”? What do creationists think about this?
And linguists? One of the most interesting parts of the book was when Brown pondered about a planet’s definition: is it based on scientific criteria or just a convention? It’s the same with “continents”. I was taught that “Oceania” was a continent and am always surprised when someone tells me that no, Australia is a continent (don’t Kiwis get pissed with this?!). On the other hand, if what matters are tectonic plaques, then why are Europa and Asia separated? Words matter and Brown’s own questions brought me back to heated debates in philosophy and semiotics classes.
The re-definition of Pluto and Eris as “dwarf planets” while the others become “classic plants” sounds muddy even to a non-expert like me – is a dwarf planet still a planet? Brown calls the new classifications “a slew of unscientific clutter”, a sitting-on-the-fence decision created to be comfortable and not change the universe as we know it.
But no matter what, Pluto will always be a planet to me. Whenever I recite the planets, I can never stop at Neptune.