How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

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Overview

The solar system most of us grew up with included nine planets, with Mercury closest to the sun and Pluto at the outer edge. Then, in 2005, astronomer Mike Brown made the discovery of a lifetime: a tenth planet, Eris, slightly bigger than Pluto. But instead of adding one more planet to our solar system, Brown’s find ignited a firestorm of controversy that culminated in the demotion of Pluto from real planet to the newly coined category of “dwarf” planet. Suddenly Brown was receiving hate mail from schoolchildren ...

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Overview

The solar system most of us grew up with included nine planets, with Mercury closest to the sun and Pluto at the outer edge. Then, in 2005, astronomer Mike Brown made the discovery of a lifetime: a tenth planet, Eris, slightly bigger than Pluto. But instead of adding one more planet to our solar system, Brown’s find ignited a firestorm of controversy that culminated in the demotion of Pluto from real planet to the newly coined category of “dwarf” planet. Suddenly Brown was receiving hate mail from schoolchildren and being bombarded by TV reporters—all because of the discovery he had spent years searching for and a lifetime dreaming about.

A heartfelt and personal journey filled with both humor and drama, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is the book for anyone, young or old, who has ever imagined exploring the universe—and who among us hasn’t?

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Brims with humor and charm . . . exhilarating.”—Los Angeles Times

“[An] out-of-this-world science memoir . . . brilliant . . . brings clarity and elegance to the complexities of planetary science. Brown is also a surprisingly self-effacing and entertaining genius.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Brown’s brisk, enjoyable How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming chronicles the whole saga [of the demotion of Pluto] and, in the process, makes [its] sad fate easier to take. If we’ve lost a planet, we’ve gained a sprightly new voice for popular science.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Eminently readable and entertaining . . . blends elements of sleuthing, international intrigue, and the awe and wonder intrinsic to the exploration of space.”—The Oregonian
 
“An unlikely hybrid of Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos and Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“[Brown] might be the finest scientist alive today. . . . We’re all better off for this man’s breathtaking commitment to science.”—The Boston Globe

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Caltech professor Brown takes readers on a leisurely stroll across campus in this memoir of an astronomer's personal life and the years-long quest to locate new planetary bodies that has so occupied his attention. Tracing his life through the academic ladder, marriage, and parenthood, Brown clearly explains difficult scientific topics with humor and warmth. By focusing nominally on his discovery of Eris, the dwarf planet that resulted in Pluto's unexpected demotion, Brown ultimately pens a love letter to his young daughter, linking her development to the planetary timeline; "Stars, planets, galaxies, quasars are all incredible and fascinating things, with behaviors and properties that we will be uncovering for years and years, but none of them is as thoroughly astounding as the development of thought, the development of language..." The scientifically-minded will be particularly amused by Brown's desire for accurate statistics regarding due dates and birth dates. Deftly pulling readers along on his journey of discovery and destruction, Brown sets the record straight and strongly defends his science with a conversational, rational, and calm voice that may change the public's opinion of scientists as poor communicators.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385531108
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/24/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 177,643
  • Product dimensions: 5.24 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Mike Brown is the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. In 2006 he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World as well as one of Los Angeles magazine’s Most Influential People in L.A. He lives in Southern California with his wife and daughter.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Is a Planet?

One December night in 1999, a friend and I were sitting on a mountaintop east of San Diego inside a thirteen-story-tall dome. Only a few lights illuminated the uncluttered floor of the cavernous interior, but above you could vaguely see the bottom half of the massive Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. The Hale Telescope was, for almost fifty years, the largest telescope in the world, but from where we sat, with the weak yellow incandescent lighting being swallowed in the darkness above, you would never have guessed where you were. You might have thought you were deep in the interior of a pristine Hoover Dam, with cables and wire and pipes for directing the flow of water around. You might have believed that the steel structures around you were part of the far underground support and control of a spotlessly clean century-old subway system. Only when the entire building gently rumbled and a tiny sliver of the starry sky appeared far over your head and the telescope began to move soundlessly and swiftly to point to some new distant object in the universe, only then would you be able to make out the shadowy outline of the truss all the way to the top of the dome and realize that you were but a dot at the base of a giant machine whose only purpose was to gather the light from a single spot beyond the sky and focus it to a tiny point just over your head.

Usually when I am working at the telescope I sit in the warm, well-lit control room, looking at computer screens showing instrument readouts, staring at digital pictures just pulled from the sky, and pondering meteorological readings and forecasts for southern California. Sometimes, though, I like to step out into the cold, dark dome and stand at the very base of the telescope and look up at the sky through the tiny open sliver high overhead and see—with my own eyes—exactly what the giant machine is looking at. This December night, however, as I was sitting with my friend inside the dark dome, there was no sky to see. The dome was fastened closed, and the telescope was idle because the entire mountain was covered in cold, dripping fog.

I tend to get quite glum on nights when I’m at a telescope with the dome closed and the precious night is slipping past. An astronomer gets to use one of these biggest telescopes only a handful of nights per year. If the night is cloudy or rainy or snowy, too bad. Your night on the telescope is simply lost, and you get to try again next year. It’s hard not to think about lost time and lost discoveries as the second hand very slowly crawls through the night and your dome stays closed. Sabine—my friend—tried to cheer me up by asking about life and work, but it didn’t help. I instead told her about how my father had died that spring, and how I felt unable to really focus on my work. She finally asked me if there was anything that I was excited about these days. I paused for a few minutes. I momentarily forgot about the freezing fog and the closed dome and the ticking clock. “I think there’s another planet past Pluto,” I told her.

Another planet? Such a suggestion would have generally been scoffed at by most astronomers in the last days of the twentieth century. While it is true that for much of the last century astronomers had diligently searched for a mythical “Planet X” beyond Pluto, by about 1990 they had more or less convinced themselves that all that searching in the past had been in vain; Planet X simply did not exist. Astronomers were certain that they had a pretty good inventory of what the solar system contained, of all of the planets and their moons, and of most of the comets and asteroids that circled the sun. There were certainly small asteroids still to be discovered, and occasionally a bright comet that had never been seen before would come screaming in from the far depths of space, but certainly nothing major was left out there to find. Serious discussions by serious astronomers of another planet beyond Pluto were as likely as serious discussions by serious geologists on the location of the lost continent of Atlantis. What kind of an astronomer would sit underneath one of the biggest telescopes in the world and declare, “I think there’s another planet past Pluto”?

...

Almost a decade earlier, in the late summer of 1992, I was in the long middle years of my graduate studies at Berkeley (the place where I was taught that Planet X certainly did not exist and that we already knew pretty much everything we needed to know about what there was in the solar system). I didn’t think much about Planet X those days. I was midway through a Ph.D. dissertation about the planet Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io. When you’re midway through a Ph.D. dissertation, your mind acquires narrow blinders, so I didn’t think much about anything other than Io and how its volcanoes spewed material into space and affected Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. I had so few thoughts to spare for most of the quotidian universe that I had fallen into a pattern of every day eating the same lunch at the same coffee shop right next to the Berkeley campus and having dinner at the same burrito stand a block away. At night I would ride my bicycle back down toward the San Francisco Bay to the marina where I lived on a tiny sailboat. The next morning I would start all over again. Less time thinking about what and where to eat and sleep meant more time thinking about Io and volcanoes and Jupiter and how they all fit together.

But, occasionally, even obsessive Ph.D. students need a break.

One afternoon, as on many times previous, after spending too much time staring at data on my computer screen and reading technical papers in dense journals and writing down thoughts and ideas in my black bound notebooks, I opened the door of my little graduate student office on the roof of the astronomy building, stepped into the enclosed rooftop courtyard, and climbed the metal stairs that went to the very top of the roof to an open balcony. As I stared at the San Francisco Bay laid out in front of me, trying to pull my head back down to the earth by watching the boats blowing across the water, Jane Luu, a friend and researcher in the astronomy department who had an office across the rooftop courtyard, clunked up the metal stairs and looked out across the water in the same direction I was staring. Softly and conspiratorially she said, “Nobody knows it yet, but we just found the Kuiper belt.”

I could tell that she knew she was onto something big, could sense her excitement, and I was flattered that here she was telling me this astounding information that no one else knew.

“Wow,” I said. “What’s the Kuiper belt?”

It’s funny today to think that I had no idea what she was talking about. Today if you sat next to me on an airplane and asked about the Kuiper belt, I might talk for hours about the region of space beyond Neptune where vast numbers of small icy objects circle the sun in cold storage and about how, occasionally, one of them comes plummeting into the inner part of the solar system to light up the skies like a comet. I might talk about the very edge of the solar system, where millions of little icy bodies never quite got gathered up into one big planet but instead stayed strewn in the disk surrounding the solar system. And I might tell you a little history, about how in the early 1990s no one had seen such a thing as this Kuiper belt, but a small group of astronomers who had predicted its existence had named the region the Kuiper belt after Dutch American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who had speculated about its existence decades earlier. And finally, if you were still listening and the plane had not yet landed, I would tell you how this Kuiper belt was finally seen, for the first time, in the late summer of 1992, and how I first learned about it on the roof of the Berkeley astronomy building a day before it appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

But when Jane told me she had just found the Kuiper belt, I didn’t know any of this. Jane explained. She had not found this vast collection of bodies beyond Neptune, exactly, but simply a single small icy body circling the sun well beyond the orbit of Pluto. The body was tiny—much, much smaller than Pluto—and as far as anyone knew for sure, it might have circled the sun all alone at the edge of the solar system. But still, exciting, right?

Cute, I thought. But it’s just one tiny object, and it’s farther away than Pluto. How could that matter?

So I nodded and listened and, like any diligent Ph.D. student midway through a dissertation, eventually walked back down the stairs, stepped into my office, and reentered the world of Jupiter and Io and volcanoes, where I actually resided.

I was wrong, of course. Even though the object discovered was only a lonely, relatively tiny ball of ice orbiting beyond Pluto, it showed that astronomers had been wrong: They didn’t actually know everything; there were things still to be found at the edge of our own solar system. Some astronomers were reluctant to consider this new possibility seriously, and they dismissed the discovery as nothing more than a fluke that presaged absolutely nothing. But soon, as more and more astronomers became excited about the possibility of discovery and started searching the regions beyond Pluto, more and more of these small bodies began to be found.

By the end of 1999, on the foggy December night when Sabine and I were sitting underneath the Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory and I was proclaiming that I thought there were new planets to be found, astronomers around the world had already discovered almost five hundred of these bodies in a vast disk beyond the orbit of Neptune in what looked very much indeed like the Kuiper belt. From being something that most astronomers had perhaps heard of once or twice, the Kuiper belt had become the hottest new field of study within the solar system.

Of the five hundred bodies that were then known in the Kuiper belt in 1999, most were relatively small, maybe a few hundred miles across, but a few moderately large objects had also been found. The largest known at the time was somewhere around a third the size of Pluto. A third the size of Pluto! Pluto had always enjoyed a somewhat mythical status as a lonely oddball at the edge of the solar system, but it turned out that it had more company than astronomers had originally thought.

Over the years since I had dismissed the entire Kuiper belt as not quite interesting enough to pull my mind away from Jupiter, I had actually been thinking a bit about Pluto and about those five hundred small icy bodies recently discovered in the distant solar system. By now it seemed to me inevitable that, whether anyone realized it or not, astronomers were on an unstoppable march that would eventually lead to a tenth planet. It seemed to me obvious that it was there, slowly circling the sun, just waiting for the moment when someone somewhere pointed a telescope at the right spot, noticed something that hadn’t been there earlier, and suddenly announced to an unsuspecting world that our solar system had more than nine planets.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Pluto Dies vii

1 What Is a Planet? 3

2 A Millennium of Planets 18

3 The Moon Is My Nemesis 29

4 The Second-Best Thing 54

5 An Icy Nail 62

6 The End of the Solar System 86

7 Raining = Pouring 113

8 Lilah, an Intermission 135

9 The Tenth Planet 144

10 Stealing the Show 162

11 Planet or Not 182

12 Mean Very Evil Men 204

13 Discord and Strife 231

Epilogue: Jupiter Moves 255

Acknowledgments 261

Index 263

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 38 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 38 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 9, 2011

    Fun and easy read.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Just the right amount of science, intrigue, humor, drama and a healthy dose life, love and family. It was a nice departure from the more dry astronomy books I've read lately. I would recommend it to anyone looking for some science mixed in with fun.

    @ Pbaum: You make valid points about some of the errors in the book (Thor being one) but you must consider who the target audience is for this book. This isn't a scientific draft, this is a book that laymen and older children can read and actually grasp. If the title and cover art didn't get that accross to you I don't know what would. Lastly, when you reference Keck not being the largest telescope, you are correct but with a caveat. You fail to mention that at the time Mike Brown made his discoveries Keck WAS the largest telescope(s). The GTC didn't come on line until July 2009, almost five years after the discoveries were made. You're splitting hairs where it isn't necessary.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 17, 2011

    Detailed Review Including Factual Errors

    This book reflects the degree to which the general public disregards real science and scholarship. It starts off as a wonderful read. We quickly are drawn into a story. Brown describes personal experiences, such as living in a cabin, meeting his future wife, going on their honeymoon, the gestation and birth of his first child, confrontations with bloggers and with fellow scientists, and other adventures. Sometimes the author broods under the dome of a famous telescope. References to science seem to be thrown in to provide a nice title, give the story a little flavor, and make sure that the protagonist appears very successful at some chosen profession. For this reader the spell was broken on Page 19, as I read, "And it is no wonder that all our basic units of time are based on the sky." Most scientists know that the basic unit of time is the second, and its astronomical connections were severed more than 50 years ago. The book continues with ".A year traced the time it took for the sun to go all the way around the sky to reappear at the same location again." The description is for what is called the sidereal year, and it differs from what is known as the tropical or solar year that we use in our ordinary calendars. Next are the sentences, "The seven days of the week are even named after the seven original planets. "Thor was the Norse king of the gods, like Jupiter, and Friday is the day of Venus in the guise of the Norse Frigga, the goddess of married love." The proposition that Thor was the "Norse King of the gods" will be noted as an error both by scholars of Norse Mythology familiar with the Prose Edda and probably by anyone who has read the Marvel Comic Thor. Thor is not even the ruler of Asgard. That is the role of his father, Odin. The Norse name for the planet Venus was Friggjarstjarna which can be translated as 'Frigg's star'. Saying that Friday is named for the goddess Frigg is different from saying it is named for Frigg's star or a planet. Within a single page of the book my feelings had gone from enjoyment and trust to wondering whether or not anything I read was true. I winced at grammatical and typographical errors and inconsistencies. On page 74 I read "I was flying out to Hawaii to use one of the the (sic) Keck telescopes-the largest telescopes in the world-to take a first really good look at Object X." The Keck telescopes on Hawaii are 10 meter instruments. Larger still are the 10.4 meter Gran Telescopio Canarias and 11.9 meter Large Binocular Telescope. Issues of care and scholarship turned out to be systemic. I found the most interesting and disturbing idea on pages 242-243. Here Mike Brown states that he would never write down a precise definition of "planet." Instead he believes that there should be only an imprecise description of the concept of a planet. Essentially he worries that a precise written definition is legalistic, flawed, and would require adjudication for any conflict regarding its application that might arise. I believe there are flaws in all of our definitions and concepts, and discussions about these flaws are important. Having nothing written in precise form tends to hide important issues. Books that accurately portray scientific investigation are important. Although this is not such a book, they are available. Examples include the works of Richard Feynman, Bernd Heinrich, and Donald Kroodsma.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Ashton

    Hai. I gtg go eat.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Savannah to prim

    Can u tell people to come and talk here from the other zomie book?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Prim

    I dont think theyll listen to me....

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2014

    Cyrus

    Okay ill be back then!! *disappearz*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2014

    Sun

    Sits silently.

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  • Posted March 15, 2013

    This here was a fun, easy read, serving as both a memoir and inf

    This here was a fun, easy read, serving as both a memoir and informative on the situation surrounding Pluto.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2013

    Matthew

    Never mind

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  • Posted April 30, 2011

    Interesting yet informative!

    In How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, author Mike Brown tells readers about the solar system, a topic that is a usually extremely boring subject matter. However, Brown manages to insert his own person experiences into the book which makes it an interesting yet informing read. Normally, science fictions novels are like a textbook with only facts and definitions. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming was so interesting that at times I forgot I was actually reading a science fiction novel! What makes it such an interesting book is that while learning about topics such as the Kuiper belt and the dwarf planets, Brown also tells readers about what was going on in his life at the time of these discoveries. Learning about him finding his wife and having his first child really makes the whole book more interesting for readers. Not to mention that fact that Brown is actually quite hilarious! Another thing that makes How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming a worthwhile read is how we can now associate a man with the death of our well loved ex-planet, Pluto. I started this book for one reason- my science book project. I never thought I would enjoy reading this book as much as I did. I would recommend it to anyone, even people not remotely interested in the solar system!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Light hearted real story of planet discovery and the change of Pluto's status

    A bit of insight into how our understanding of the universe is changing--fast.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 21, 2011

    Introspective love letter to science and family

    To most people, science is perplexing and human relationships even more so. Mike Brown's memoir about his discovery of several scientific breakthroughs share center stage with his family and the birth of his daughter. He uses this book to explain the science behind his discoveries but also the people behind them. It is a joyful read, light without being simple and endearing without being mushy. He is genuinely passionate for science and his family and this fantastic book cannot be missed. I highly recommend it!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 10, 2011

    Accessible and Funny

    If you're a professional scientist, how do you describe the intriguing details of astronomy without leaving people utterly in the dust? Brown does it. I particularly enjoyed describing his family life, and how it strangely interacted with his role in "whacking Pluto" from the list of planets. His sense of humor is very appropriate, and there's a disarming humiility to his voice. It's a great book. Read it.

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  • Posted February 6, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Funny and informative

    Great book. Brown invited the reader to ask questions and engage in the debate... what IS a planet? The book followed the time line of Mike Brown's discoveries, career, marriage and birth of his daughter. It was a great insight into the world of astronomy and the story of one very unique and funny astronomer.

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  • Posted January 25, 2011

    What a great book that I couldn't put down!

    Brown is a wonderful teacher explaining advanced astronomy in layman's terms. He uses simple examples and suggestions to detail the theories and ideas that he puts forth. His book gave me a clearer understanding of our solar system and I was fully drawn into his world through his passion for the subject. His humor and self-deprecating wit made the book even more enjoyable. It's a great, easy read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2010

    I absolutely LOVED this book!

    I've never thought of a Caltech professor/astronomer as funny but this guy is LOL-funny! Interspersed with the story of how Pluto was downgraded he tells his personal story about finding his wife, falling in love, having their little girl and fatherhood. As you learn about astronomy in ways that you may have missed in school, you learn about a man who chose to do the right thing over the chance for fame in future history books. I hope he's in there anyway. He deserves the best. And all future children deserve to have this example taught to them. The book is well written, easy to follow and...did I mention funny? You won't be disappointed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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