Title: The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet.
Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Genre: Non-fiction, science, astronomy, humour, letters, interviews, sociology, history.
Publication Date: January 26, 2009.
Summary: A book written by astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director. The Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History reclassified Pluto as an icy comet. Immediately, the public, professionals, and press were choosing sides over Pluto's planethood. Pluto is entrenched in our cultural and emotional view of the cosmos, and Tyson, went on a quest to discover why. He stood at the heart of the controversy over Pluto's demotion, and consequently Plutophiles have freely shared their opinions with him, including endless hate mail. Tyson delivers a mini-history of planets, describes the over-sized characters of the people who study them, and recounts how America's favorite planet was ousted from the cosmic hub.
My rating: 8/10.
My review: Lucid. Reasonable. Tongue-in-cheek. Good-natured. This book was an absolute pleasure to read. Tyson lays out the science behind the decision to demote Pluto from planet status succinctly and accessibly, making complicated astronomy, not to mention complicated bureaucracy of the scientific community, easy to grasp regardless of your scientific understanding. But I think the greatest appeal of this book is when Tyson delves deeper into why letting Pluto go was not just a scientific question for so many people or, in most cases, not a scientific question at all. He makes reasonable and compelling parallels between Pluto and our popular culture, as well as the depth and strength of human sentimentality. And though Tyson himself is a scientist, and was at the forefront of the debate, it's beautiful to see with what compassion and good humour he approaches people's unwillingness to let Pluto go, whilst holding firm with his scientific verdict. The section of the book where children had sent in letters to the bad evil man who betrayed Pluto were hilarious and adorable. A fast read with a lot of beautiful photographs and illustrations.
♥ You can show, using freshman-level calculus, that the one and only shape that has the smallest surface area for an enclosed volume is a perfect sphere. In fact, billions of dollars could be saved annually on packaging materials if all shipping boxes and all packages of food in the supermarket were spheres. For example, the contents of a big box of Cheerios would fit easily into a spherical carton that had a 4-inch radius. But practical matters prevail. Spheres don't pack or stack well and nobody wants to chase packaged goods down the aisle after it rolls off the shelves. We already do this for apples and oranges.
♥ This conundrum reveals a deeper truth in science: When your reasons for believing something are justified ad hoc, you are left susceptible to further discoveries undermining the rationale for that belief.
♥ If Pluto continues to be referred to as the ninth planet, it would only be due to tradition and sentimental reasons. People are fond of planets, because the idea of a planet conjures up notions of home, life, happy things, and astronomers are always looking to find more planets, not to lose them. So in the end, the question goes back to this: Should science be a democratic process, or should logic have something to do with it?
♥ Monday, May 24, 1999. The night Pluto fell from grace.
♥ To them, the hoopla wasn't about a scientific question. The organization of the solar system, how the solar system came to be the way it is - those are genuine scientific questions. Bit the labels you give things - no. You're having an argument over something you generate rather than what is fundamental to the universe. While you're sitting around debating, Pluto and the rest of the universe happily keep doing whatever it is they do, without regard to our urges to classify.
♥ As we have already seen with the media headlines, Pluto's demotion became a window on who and what we are as a culture, blending themes drawn from party politics, social protest, celebrity worship, economic indicators, academic dogma, education policy, social bigotry, and jingoism.
♥ The article ends with Vanity Fair astrologer Michael Lutin saying that he will consider the newcomers, but remains skeptical of their influence on our daily affairs due to their location at the outer reaches of the solar system: "UB313 is never going to tell you whether Wednesday is good for romance." Actually, neither will anything else in the sky, unless it's an asteroid headed toward Earth, scheduled to hit on Wednesday.
Please tell your children to stay in school.
♥ Where do you go from there? Because of exercises such as this, elementary school curricula have unwittingly stunted an entire generation of children by teaching them that a memorized sequence of planet names is the path to understand the solar system. The word planet itself continues to garner profound significance in our hearts and minds. This was surely justifiable before telescopes let us observe planet atmospheres; before space probes landed on planet surfaces; before we learned that icy moons make fertile targets for astrobiologists; before we understood the history of asteroid and comet collisions. But today, the rote exercise of planet counting rings hollow and impedes the inquire of a vastly richer landscape of science drawn from all that populates our cosmic environment.