[Book Review] How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown

Summary: A tale of discovery, long hours, family and scientific skullduggery! Very enjoyable and easy to read, and well worth picking up!

Review: Readers who are familiar with this blog may have already gathered that I have a strong interest in the question of “What is a planet” and the events and discoveries surrounding that debate. So when Prof. Mike Brown (the discoverer of Eris, the object that ultimately toppled Pluto from its perch as the ninth planet) published a book describing his side of the story I was naturally keen to read what he had to say about the affair.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming” doesn’t go into too much detail about the technicalities of planet definition, but it does present a very readable, understandable, funny, and even sometimes touching account of the Prof’s interest and involvement in the science of the outer reaches of the solar system. As the book progresses, it takes us through his team’s initial discoveries of other major objects in the Kuiper Belt (including Haumea, Quaoar, Sedna, Orcus, and Makemake), and ultimately “Xena”, which would later rather fittingly be named after Eris, the greek goddess of discord.

Along the way, Brown – who generally comes across as a Really Nice Guy – gets married and raises a daughter, and at various points in the book we switch from science to family life and see how he deals with his wife’s pregnancy (like any good scientist, he wants to make graphs of everything. I don’t blame him, I’d probably do that myself!) and the arrival of his daughter Lilah (who has some totally adorable moments in the book – my favourite is on page 200). This gives us some nice personal moments while all the science is going on!

Things get really interesting in the “Stealing the Show” chapter, which describes how a group in Spain attempted to claim the discovery of Haumea for themselves. I won’t go into the details here, but it’s a gripping read – Brown handles the affair very well, presenting it in the book as neutrally as he can (I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Spaniards were way out of line, myself). I remember reading about this when it happened, and it saddens me that that some scientists can think they can get away with this sort of thing. In the end, the IAU decided to credit the Spanish observatory (but no individual) with the discovery, and allowed Brown’s group to name the new object. Personally, I think this reflects poorly on the IAU – in my opinion, Brown’s group clearly deserves the discovery credit (and as far as I’m aware the Spaniards never presented any evidence that they did their own observations before Brown’s group).

In the final chapters Brown describes the IAU decision that caused Pluto (and Eris) to lose their planetary status, and he was clearly somewhat bemused by the direction they were heading in. Frankly, I have to wonder what the IAU committees were smoking when they came up with the definitions too – I definitely consider myself an ‘Eight-Planeter” who doesn’t count Pluto as a full planet, but I think the “dwarf planet” classificiation is unnecessary, impractical, and poorly considered (for reasons described in my “What is a planet” article).

Overall “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming” is a very entertaining, readable, easy to understand science book about one of those rare scientific events that got everyone talking. It’s definitely a great book if you’re interested in science at all, and well worth reading!

Incidentally, Mike Brown has a blog/website that is full of very interesting articles about his work, and he also has a twitter feed that you can follow too – I definitely recommend checking those out too!

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