"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Let's Reclassify 'How I Killed Pluto'

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It ComingHow I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a must-read...unless you want to get to the bottom of the Pluto controversy. Still, don’t skip this book...except if you are anxious to learn why Pluto is not a planet. In short, read this book, but not for the titular reason it begs to be read. Pluto is only a supporting character in Dr. Mike Brown’s story.

Read this book because it is a great memoir. Dr. Brown’s tale of hunting for new planets is full of drama and intrigue. If you have ever been fascinated by the high-stakes, ultra-competitive lives of star athletes, performers or politicians, be assured that the life of a research scientist is every bit as intense and engrossing. Or at least it can be, and it certainly has been for Dr. Brown. His research was an active ingredient in what became a planetary controversy.

Paradigm-shifting research notwithstanding, this is mostly a book about one man. It is an introspective account of Dr. Brown’s zealous quest to be a discoverer, not just a scientist. And at its most meaningful, it is a story about how Brown’s desire to be a good husband and father magically supplanted his other ambitions. Furthermore, it behooves all of us who are non-scientists to learn not just about the science, but also about the lives of upper-echelon researchers. Like it or not, academics such as Dr. Brown play an integral role in shaping everything from government policy to human history.

All that said, if what you are after is the story of Pluto’s “death”, then you might want to pass on a book that is mostly about Dr. Brown’s life. If you want an engaging account of the Pluto controversy, I recommend Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files. But once you are done reading that one, come back to this far more personal story. We all can learn from the ups and downs of a good scientist.

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  1. That is an awesomely funny title for such a divisive issue!! :)

  2. 'Divisive' certainly describes the Pluto controversy. I know for me it's been a fascinating controversy in terms of revealing how hard science and popular culture intersect. Thanks for reading!