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Book review: 'How I Killed Pluto' by Mike Brown and 'Moon' by Bernd Brunner

Mike Brown's account of how Pluto was bumped down from planetary status is a lively look into astronomy, while Bernd Brunner waxes poetic, and scientific, on the moon.

January 09, 2011|By Nick Owchar | Los Angeles Times
  • The surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. Pluto is so small and distant that the task of resolving the surface is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away.
The surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA… (NASA, ESA and M. Buie / Southwest…)

How I Killed Pluto

And Why It Had It Coming

Mike Brown

Spiegel & Grau: 267 pp., $25


A Brief History

Bernd Brunner

Yale University Press: 290 pp., $25

Pluto. Poor little guy. He never wanted much. The others could be bigger, they could be better-looking or brag about themselves ("I'm burning hot!" or "I have rings!" or "I support life!"). He didn't care. All he wanted was to be part of the planet club. And for about 75 years, that tiny frozen world billions of miles from the sun was a card-carrying member.

Then, in 2006, Pluto was kicked out — reclassified as a dwarf planet.

The credit — or, for the outraged nine-planet fans, the blame — goes to the International Astronomical Union. It also goes to Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, who just couldn't help finding other tantalizing objects at the edges of the solar system that challenged Pluto's planetary status.

"I would hear from many people who were sad about Pluto," Brown writes in "How I Killed Pluto: And Why It Had It Coming." "And I understood. Pluto was part of their mental landscape, the one they had constructed to organize their thinking about the solar system and their own place within it."

Brown's book brims with humor and charm as he describes the thrill of the hunt that compensates for all the drudge work involved in astronomy.

Sure, he says, there's certainly more ease today than in the 1930s when Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto. But hunting for distant objects is still a painstaking process of sifting images, either with computers or a magnifying glass, to find that faint dot that is more than just a scratch on the lens. There are also plenty of long, tedious nights and a frustrating application process to use the mightiest telescopes on the ground and the Hubble Space Telescope overhead to confirm calculations.

Brown's a warm, generous guide, acknowledging the work of his colleagues — Chadwick Trujillo and David Rabinowitz — and also his readers' limitations, using language that's clear and simple. He includes touching glimpses of his marriage and the birth of his daughter that act as a nice counterpoint to the galactic story he's telling (during his courtship of his wife, Brown says, the many "no's" he experienced during the hunt were balanced by her "yes" to his proposal).

Don't assume, however, that the astronomy business is pure romance. Hardly. There's plenty of professional jealousy and dishonesty: Brown describes how a Spanish scientist might have stolen the claim to one of his team's discoveries if there hadn't been a computer trail showing that he was spying on the telescope positions of Brown's team. He also recounts the tortured collective decision-making of the IAU, during its 2006 meeting, when it first proposed revising the solar system to include 12 planets — adding, along with Brown's discovery of Eris (a distant body slightly larger than Pluto), the asteroid Ceres and Pluto's moon Charon — and then created a dwarf planet category instead.

Brown had much to gain by the former idea — how cool is it to have "planet discoverer" on your CV? — but he says he was pleased by the IAU's decision because it "put a scientific foundation behind what most people think they mean when they say the word 'planet.'"

After Pluto's demotion, you may recall, one group wasn't pleased: astrologers. They got over it, though, and Pluto's still very important today in the making of horoscopes. And, for $12, you can still buy a glow-in-the-dark, hanging mobile of the solar system for your kids that features the sun and nine planets.

But scientists like Brown can't go along with fortunetellers or toymakers for a reason that's unavoidable: the Kuiper belt. Out there, starting around the orbit of Neptune, are "vast numbers of small icy objects [that] circle the sun in cold storage" that are leftovers from the creation of the solar system. Pluto — along with Eris and other objects — are more rightly members of the Kuiper club, named for the astronomer who speculated about the belt's existence, Gerard Kuiper.

Brown's book is exhilarating for a simple reason: He directs our attention at something we never think about. The same is true of Bernd Brunner's "Moon: A Brief History," which helps us to regain our appreciation for something right under our noses — actually, right above them.

What is the moon? Where did it come from? Brunner turns for an answer to the materials out of which the planets (and the Kuiper belt) were made. One popular theory is that, at some point in the solar system's infancy, another planet called Theia slammed into the Earth, annihilating itself and tearing off a piece of the Earth that formed into our planet's satellite.

Brunner's book is about much more than such a theory, however, and provides a nimble, fast-moving survey of the silvery moon's impact upon us and our world. Brunner looks at the moon's influence upon tides, of course, and also its place in early psychology, the occult, popular culture and as a necessary first step on humanity's journey to Mars.

As wondrous as the moon or the Kuiper belt may be, though, what Brunner and Brown remind us is that the mind is even more wondrous for comprehending them. It was the ancient Hindus, Brunner writes, who celebrated the reach of human thought in their sacred text the "Rig-Veda," declaring: "O Moon!/ We should be able to know you through our intellect,/ You enlighten us through the right path."

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