Review of The Pluto Files

My wife recently received a copy of The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. She asked if I would read it and review it so here is what I thought.

Astronomers of all ages and levels of skill are benefiting from an explosion of knowledge on topics ranging from possible life on Mars, to the influence of dark matter on the universe, to frequent reports about newly discovered exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars). The deluge of data has resulted in a whirlwind of new ideas and the inevitable changes to the scientific status quo. Pluto’s recent change of planetary status and the cultural and scientific turmoil that led up to its demotion stem directly from our attempts to get a handle on the latest discoveries.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book “The Pluto Files: the Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet” does a wonderful job of putting all the scientific and cultural issues into a fun, well-balanced and very readable volume. The science in the book is easy to follow and presented in a very balanced way. Dr. Tyson presents the facts in the context of culture and history throughout the tale of the beleaguered Pluto. It is an approachable book and very readable. The inclusion of many humorous comics and images of the prominent players in this tragic drama makes it seem more real. You get a sense of the human element. After all, this is a story about how humans react when science and sentimentality don’t get along.

Dr. Tyson makes his opinion very clear, but he is willing to admit that the topics bear more discussion. What about Sedna, Eris, and the other “new planets” that make the inclusion of Pluto a sticky problem for planetary scientists? In the end he suggests the issue isn’t whether or not Pluto should be a planet, but that astronomers should do a better job of attempting to handle the newcomers to our celestial party. Can we really do science by committee? Is science meant to be a democracy? Shouldn’t careful science be the way things are done? Perhaps we have all been too hasty in taking sides on the issue of Pluto’s planethood. Maybe we should have a few more planets in our list or leave the number at 8. Either way, we need to understand how all the parts of the solar system work, regardless of what classification we use.

Yes, it is true that Pluto clearly doesn’t fit with the terrestrial planets of the inner solar system nor with the gas giants of the outer solar system. But it matters less what name we use to describe Pluto, Ceres, Eris, Sedna, and the others yet to be discovered and more what we do as a culture with our new information. After all, Pluto’s story is our story regardless of what label we use to describe it.

So even if you are not a fan of Pluto or an astronomy buff, go out and get a copy of this delightful book, and I promise you will laugh and likely learn some fun stuff, too.

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