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Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Time Event
11:38p
No clothes and a collar ...
Ever since they explained it to me at the dollar store, I'm less incredulous at finding really cool books for a buck, but it still feels pretty remarkable when I show up there after a re-stock (of the books that they buy in bulk from places like Walmart when the stock cycles out of their book sections) and find real gems. Needless to say, Neil deGrasse Tyson's The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet (a book still in print) was a pleasant surprise.

I'm sure that most folks are at least peripherally aware of the subject of this book … the “demoting” of Pluto from planetary status to a “dwarf planet”, one among many existing out beyond the orbit of Neptune (although, interestingly, Pluto, with an “off kilter” orbit, sometimes is closer to the Sun than Neptune, but the two have managed to sync their orbits so there's no chance of a collision). I suppose it's some sort of consolation that this class of “dwarf planets” have been re-named “Plutoids”, so that Pluto, rather than being the least of the planets is now the first among an ever-growing list of minor bodies (some a bit larger than Pluto) out on the edges of the solar system.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has become the media face for planetary studies, Director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, and an astro-physicist with the American Museum of Natural History, he is constantly in demand as a guest on TV shows and as a lecturer at schools across the country. Much of The Pluto Files feels like it's addressed to a younger audience (although the book is not specifically targeted to kids), with lots of cartoons, Disney connections, song lyrics, and even reprints of a bunch of grade school kid's letters, but it, ultimately, is a pretty straight-forward telling of the history of Pluto in the sciences and popular culture.

There certainly is a lesson to be learned here … Pluto was only discovered in 1930, so had been a planet for just over 75 years when it was re-classified in 2006 … yet the level of public outcry, especially in the USA, was pretty extreme. If only three or four generations were told that the solar system had nine planets (the last of which was Pluto), yet the “demoting” of it caused so much hostility, it becomes easy to understand how religion keeps it hooks in believers.

The book looks at how a planet out beyond Neptune had been forecast from the orbital patterns of the outer planets, and how it was discovered, named, and taught in the developing astronomical sciences. However, it was the onward march of science that brought better telescopes and tracking machines (computers replacing film exposures), and suddenly there were many “trans-Neptunian objects” running around in the Kuiper belt … at least eight around Pluto's size.

One of the key “set pieces” for the book was a new display at the Hayden, where Pluto was nowhere to be found. The inner “rocky” planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, were there, and the outer “gas giants”, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, were there, but Pluto and other Kuiper belt “ice balls” were not represented. Strangely, there were even members of the scientific community who were angrily fighting to keep Pluto in the planetary mix … but most of the opposition came from folks who just weren't comfortable “having their universe changed” on them. While I did not have a strong reaction to Pluto's reclassification, I can sort of understand where they were coming from, as I felt a certain level of “personal affront” when I discovered that the creature I grew up knowing as a Brontosaurus had somehow morphed into an Apatosaurus without anybody seeking out my opinion on the matter.

Anyway, The Pluto Files is a light, yet very informative read. There were a good half dozen things that were completely new to me here, and I'm reasonably well-read on the solar system, as well as information on how the name happened, and some details of astronomical research which were quite illuminating. It had its lesser moments (the recurring bickering between Tyson and a “pro-planet” guy got tiresome fast, and why did they bother including three appendices for song lyrics and another two for stupid tongue-in-cheek legislation on the matter from New Mexico and California? … those could have just as usefully been URLs in footnotes instead of 6% of the book), but those are just minor gripes (and I suppose the book had to have a picture of the author posing with the Disney character Pluto).

Anybody interested in astronomy, planetary science, scientific “politics” and history, as well as sociological issues of how belief systems become ingrained in the masses, should find this book fascinating. As noted, it's still in print (although I'm guessing it's long since been sold through in the dollar store channel), so might even be available via brick & mortar book stores, but the on-line guys have it at a discount, and “good” copies of the hardcover can be had for under a buck (plus shipping, of course) from the new/used guys. I certainly enjoyed this, and am glad I stumbled over it like I did!


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