Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown

>> Friday, July 24, 2015

TITLE: Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
AUTHOR: Mike Brown

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non Fiction

The solar system most of us grew up with included nine planets, with Mercury closest to the sun and Pluto at the outer edge. Then, in 2005, astronomer Mike Brown made the discovery of a lifetime: a tenth planet, Eris, slightly bigger than Pluto. But instead of adding one more planet to our solar system, Brown’s find ignited a firestorm of controversy that culminated in the demotion of Pluto from real planet to the newly coined category of “dwarf” planet. Suddenly Brown was receiving hate mail from schoolchildren and being bombarded by TV reporters—all because of the discovery he had spent years searching for and a lifetime dreaming about.

A heartfelt and personal journey filled with both humor and drama, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is the book for anyone, young or old, who has ever imagined exploring the universe—and who among us hasn’t?

The excitement about the wonderful pictures of Pluto coming from the New Horizons probe reminded me that I had this audiobook in my mp3 player. There wasn't going to be a better time to listen to it!

This is basically a memoir, covering the years in the early-mid 2000s when Brown, an astronomer at Caltech, was heading a succession of projects looking for planets. These projects culminated in a discovery that forced astronomers to reconsider the very definition of what "planets" are. And thus, Pluto's demotion from one of the planets to a "dwarf planet", one of many, and Mike Brown's alter-ego of "Pluto killer".

I loved every minute I spent listening to this audiobook. The science is pitched just right. I know very little about astronomy, but I'm a reasonably intelligent layperson. Brown's explanations had the perfect amount of technical detail, explained in a way that made sense but didn't feel oversimplified or patronising. I have a much better idea now of what an astronomer like him does day to day (including doing a surprising amount of reading about mythology, if they ever discover anything significant!). Most importantly, Brown really conveyed the wonder and awe of his work, what makes the drudgery worth it!

But it's not all descriptions of solid science. There's a surprising amount of skullduggery and plotting and detective work, and this is even before we get to the section on the politicking around the reclassification of Pluto. Those sections were incredibly exciting. I was lucky enough that I was just getting on a train as that part started, so I spent all 2 hours of the journey just sitting there, listening intently.

There's also a really nice balance between the astronomy and the personal stuff. Brown meets his wife around the time when his planet-hunting projects are getting started, and his daughter is born, with great timing, exactly in the middle of a spate of important discoveries. While not the focus of the book, these elements really enhance the astronomy sections and give them yet another layer of meaning.

It all works so well because Brown is a wonderful narrator (that is, someone else reads the audiobook, I mean narrator as in the person from whose 1st-person POV we see the action). He comes across as endearing, both in his enthusiasm about astronomy and the way he's clearly besotted with his wife and daughter. And I appreciated that in the sections where he's basically accusing other scientists of wrong-doing, he seems to be making the effort to be even-handed and give them the benefit of the doubt. I did try to keep in mind that I was getting only Brown's side of the story, so I have done a bit of googling to read the other scientists' accounts, but I didn't find those very convincing. They did make me wonder, though, if the situation had been reversed and it had been Spanish astronomers accusing a US team of the same things, with the same evidence, if they would have had the same reaction from the astronomy establishment.

A fantastic book, and one I highly recommend, even for readers who are not particularly interested in astronomy (by the end of this, you will be!)



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