When New York’s American Museum of Natural History rebuilt its Rose Center for Earth and Space, its staff of astrophysicists, after much discussion, decided to exclude Pluto from the area displaying models of the planets, grouping it instead with the growing number of icy objects being discovered beyond Neptune. The reclassification remained largely unnoticed until a year after the 2000 opening, when The New York Times published a front-page story headlined “Pluto’s Not a Planet? Only in New York.” Author Neil deGrasse Tyson, the center’s director, writes that the ensuing media frenzy made him “public enemy of Pluto lovers the world over.” In this irreverent, entertaining, yet substantive book, Tyson traces the short history of Planet Pluto, from its 1930 discovery by an Illinois farm boy and amateur astronomer to the 2006 vote by the International Astronomical Union to demote it to “dwarf planet” status. As Tyson suggests, the debate was not just scientific but also cultural: adults clung to the planetary sequence they had memorized in their youth, while schoolchildren reliably claimed Pluto as their favorite planet, perhaps because it shares a name with a beloved Disney character (the heavily illustrated book includes reproductions of outraged letters Tyson received from kids). In the end, vindicated by the IAU, Tyson makes a compelling case for freeing ourselves from Pluto nostalgia, arguing that “the rote exercise of planet counting rings hollow and impedes the inquiry of a vastly richer landscape of science drawn from all that populates our cosmic environment.”
About the Author
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a PhD in American Studies.