Web edition: February 13, 2009
Print edition: February 28, 2009; Vol.175 #5 (p. 31)
Americans love the pla … err, dwarf pla … err, plutoid Pluto. The feeling is so strong, in fact, that it sparked an overwhelming public outcry when in 2006 the International Astronomical Union kicked Pluto from the planet club, writes astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson.
His latest book chronicles the history, science and controversy that ultimately led to the planet’s demotion. By reprinting song lyrics, editorial cartoons and letters from third graders, among others who challenged and still challenge the IAU decision, the author illustrates Americans’ cultural love affair with Pluto. He also explains how Pluto’s fall from grace divided the nation. Among all planet names, he writes, “Pluto sounds the most like a punch line of a hilarious joke,” and now “Pluto is not a red-blooded planet.… How rude.”
It’s these jibes and Tyson’s personal anecdotes that make the book a fun read. But, had he toned down his signature writing style when describing the science supporting Pluto’s demotion, The Pluto Files would have made a better case for rejecting the planet label for Pluto — and perhaps ultimately for all planets.
The author argues that children could instead learn about the solar system by grouping objects with similar features into families. A person interested in volcanoes, for example, might study Earth, Mars, Jupiter’s moon Io and Saturn’s moon Titan. Explaining Pluto’s lack of planethood in less stylized prose may have made the author’s reasoning a bit crisper and perhaps would have made his family organization scheme sound a bit more practical.
W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 194 p., $23.95