How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

I just finished reading the book by Mike Brown that shares its name with this blog post, so I thought I’d post a short review here.

The book is essentially an account of the set of discoveries that Mike Brown made at the beginning of the past decade and how the discovery of Eris in particular led to the controversial defining of the word “planet” so as to exclude Pluto from the category.  The book is very accessible to a general audience, avoiding technical discussions of planetary dynamics and even joking at one point about not knowing the definition of Barycentric Dynamical Time.

For me, the best part of the book was that it filled in the back-story behind the finding and naming of the objects that Brown discovered.  Since the 2006 IAU conference that redefined what a planet is, I’ve paid a good deal of attention to those objects, but I didn’t know many of the particulars of their discovery and this book definitely helps fill in the details.

Mostly, this is an account of Mike Brown’s life during this period of discovery–he got married and had a daughter over the course of time that he was making the discoveries– and indeed his daughter was the chief focus of his life when the most dramatic events relating to the science were unfurling.

Brown’s view of the solar system is concordant my own.  In summary, he sees the solar system as being dominated by the four outer planets, the gas giants, with the four inner planets of secondary importance.  After that come the smaller bodies in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, this group including Pluto and many of Brown’s discoveries, and the Asteroid Belt, which lies between Jupiter and Mars.  Obviously, this is controversial to the many, many people who learned that the solar system had nine planets as a child, but I think that this view best captures the state of our solar system.

So, I would recommend this book to those who want a personal description of the process that uncovered the existence of  dwarf planets like Sedna and Eris.  If you want a more detailed description of the dynamics of solar system bodies past Neptune, I’d actually recommend Mike Brown’s blog, which he started last November.

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About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Reviews, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

  1. Pluto is not dead; Mike Brown tried but failed to “kill” it. The IAU demotion was done by only four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists. It was opposed by hundreds of planetary scientists in a formal petition led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Even Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson admits the debate is ongoing. I encourage people to learn both sides of the issue. Some good pro-Pluto as a planet books are “Is Pluto A Planet?” by Dr. David Weintraub, “The Case for Pluto” by Alan Boyle, and my own book, hopefully out next year, “The Little Planet that Would Not Die: Pluto’s Story.”

  2. Meng Bomin says:

    Ooh, a list of talking points.

    Honestly, it’s hard to see how pro-Pluto activists have a more appealing “solar system view” than Mike Brown. Pluto is a significant object to be sure, but it doesn’t rise to the level of importance of any of the objects currently classified as planets. It exists in it current orbit only because of the 3:2 resonance it has with Neptune that keeps it far away from the giant planet at all times. Neptune, of course, is one of the four planets in our solar system with a satellite that is both larger and more massive than Pluto (Earth 1, Jupiter 4, Saturn 1, Neptune 1; no satellites in our solar system are more massive than Mercury).

    Now, I support the mission that Dr. Stern is heading up to Pluto, the New Horizons mission, which will be significant regardless of Pluto’s classification, just as the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres will be greatly illuminating in its investigation of two objects that only those who have gone through the greatest of hoops to come up with logically consistent planetary criteria to include Pluto think are planets.

    Classification is a way of framing the world that we see. None of the objects that orbit the sun care what they call them, but I think that it’s pretty clear that the notion that’s reigned for decades that there are 9 planets and a swarm of less important objects is the wrong way to go. I’ll come out again and endorse Mike Brown’s way of framing our solar system that the 4 most massive non-solar objects in our solar system form a separate class than the next 4 rockier bodies with orbits interior to them and that there are regions of smaller objects, which should be considered together, such as those with orbits dominated by Jupiter (including the Asteroid belt and Jupiter’s trojans) and those with orbits dominated by Neptune (including the Kuiper belt, of which Pluto is one of the most significant members).

    In the end, the question of what will be be considered a planet is one to be answered by popular culture over time. However, I suspect that my children and grandchildren and their peers will think it strange that an object like Pluto was ever placed in the same category as Jupiter.

    Obviously, the world doesn’t always agree with me: I also think that Europe should be considered a superpeninsula of Eurasia rather than a separate continent, but it seems that such a view has no traction in the Anglosphere. I suspect that you’ll find yourself in a similar situation in twenty years when few people agree that Pluto and Ceres should be rescued from their demoted status.

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