How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming

I couldn't get my cat to pose with the book, so you'll have to content yourself with just the cover art.

I post a lot about Pluto and the definition of “planet”, given that I keep saying that I don’t have a stake in it and don’t particularly care how Pluto is classified. It’s fun to write about, and of course it’s pedagogically interesting — the debate is a snapshot of how science works in practice, with personality clashes, emotional outbursts, and the occasional Scientist Behaving Badly. What’s not to like?

With all of that, of course I had to obtain and read Mike Brown‘s book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming. (Yes, I know this book came out last year. If you want me to review books faster, hire me and I’ll be able to afford to buy them more often.) Brown of course is the astronomer who led or participated in the discovery of Eris, Quaoar, Haumea, and various other distant icy objects, helping shape our view of the outer Solar System. Eris is more massive than Pluto, but in a sense it’s just the most prominent example of why Pluto isn’t unique, and this is what brought the question of what should be called “planet” to the forefront of public attention.

How I Killed Pluto is about half science, half memoir. Much of the book is a love letter to Brown’s wife Diane and daughter Lilah; their shared lives intertwine with discovery and public brouhaha to make a very personal and occasionally hilarious narrative. Those of us with actual research experience will nod or laugh in recognition of the ups and downs he goes through (though few of us can list the same level of accomplishment — we have to satisfy ourselves with much less). We’ve all been in the doldrums where things aren’t going as planned, where anything seems better than the work in front of us; Brown describes this as well as the thrill of discovery — and the nagging doubts that accompany success. In other words, the book describes what it’s like to be a real scientist: a human being who does science, sometimes messes up (but fixes things!), gets distracted, gets lost in details, but gets perspective back in time.

Of course Brown discusses the Pluto “issue”, and states the issue as plainly as I’ve heard it stated. (In fact, I’ve pointed out that my students come to a similar conclusion!) If you look at the types of objects in the Solar System without a preconceived notion of what a “planet” is, you would likely not lump Jupiter and Earth and Pluto together in the same category; you would likely give them three different names. The reasons the International Astronomical Union gave for declassifying Pluto as a planet (and creating the “dwarf planet” category) are kind of lousy, yet reasonable people can agree with the end result if they can get beyond the “but I learned this in school” mentality. In fact, I recommend this book if you are of the “Pluto must remain a planet!!!” mindset; I think, even if you still want to keep the tiny iceball a planet, you’ll at least have a better idea of why its planetary status is questionable.

All of this is written with humility and a great sense of humor. (Brown’s Twitter handle is @plutokiller, if you need further convincing.) He cares very deeply for the science he does and for the people in his life; all this love comes through in the prose. I can think of no higher recommendation than that.


23 Responses to “How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming”

  1. 1 Laurel Kornfeld September 12, 2011 at 20:53

    My twitter name is @plutosavior; I am an astronomer who also cares very deeply for science and for the people around me, and I happen to represePluto 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.

    There are many reasonable people, including leading astronomers, who do NOT agree with the end result of the IAU decision, not just because of the problematic process in which it was adopted, but because we prefer a geophysical planet definition based on what the object is rather than where it is. If an object orbits a star and is large enough to attain hydrostatic equilibrium, it is a planet. The more we learn about Pluto, the more clear it is that Pluto is a complex world with geology and weather; in fact, Earth is more like Pluto than like Jupiter. Pluto is 70 percent rock, is layered into core, mantle, and crust, has nitrogen in its atmosphere just like Earth does, and has a moon (actually 4 moons) formed via giant impact, again, just like Earth does. In contrast, what does Earth have in common with Jupiter, which is compositionally much more like the Sun, whose moons formed alongside it? Pluto’s difference is not a problem if one considers that there are not two but three classes of planets. Dwarf planets are a third class constituted by small objects large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium, but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits.

    I hope you will read and give the same attention to my book, “The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto’s Story,” which could be construed as a “love letter” to Pluto. Personally, I do not believe memoirs of marriage and children belong in astronomy books; none of the many other books on this subject go off on such tangents. As a woman astronomer, I emphasize that the important people in this saga are the astronomers, not their spouses or children. Women have worked too hard to move beyond their status revolving around marriage and kids.

  2. 2 Laurel Kornfeld September 12, 2011 at 20:54

    Sorry for the error in the first paragraph. It should read, “…I happen to represent the view that planet Pluto is not dead.”

  3. 3 Mike Wrathell September 12, 2011 at 22:49

    Wikipedia says Brown is a co-discoverer of Eris. It does not say he was the leader of the discoverers, like Christopher Columbus led the crew of the Santa Maria. Yet, I have seen many book reviews that claim him to be the sole discoverer of Eris. He never corrects this himself. Far from being humble, the name “plutokiller” is hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing. Mike Brown should stick to things he knows about, like the dwarf planets he co-discovered. He has nothing to do with NASA’s unmanned mission to Pluto called New Horizons. His obsession with throwing potshots at Pluto is an embarrassment to planetary science. Ms. Kornfeld is right about the IAU. Having watched a video of the session of the 2006 General Assembly in Prague in which Pluto was downgraded, I saw an exercise in the abuse of raw power to ramrod a resolution through that lacked a quorum, proper notice to the membership, and necessary vetting. Hopefully, after New Horizons reaches Pluto in July 2015, the 2015 IAU General Assembly in Honolulu will reopen the definition of a planet. If not, the IAU risks complete irrelevance. There are other astronomical organizations that can takes its place if it continues to abuse its powers.

  4. 4 Mike Wrathell September 12, 2011 at 22:57

    By the way, if Earth was in Pluto’s orbit, it would not meet the current definition of a planet. The current definition was seemingly tailored to deplanetize Pluto. No wonder many planetary scientists have rejected it outright.

  5. 5 Ellie Hale September 13, 2011 at 00:10

    Hurray! Laurel K and Mike W are back! It’s been months since both of their Google searchs scored a hit on the same page so we could hear their rants once again.

    Laurel: You’re not an astronomer in the eyes of most people! You’re an **amateur** astronomer. I, myself, am an amateur philosopher, and I even took a few graduate classes to prove it. And while that is very commendable [ok, in my case, at least, it wasn’t all that commendable. Pathetic, perhaps. But not commendable] and, yes, also quite enjoyable, that does not make you much of a scientific authority. So, please, stop trying to pretend to be one. It simply doesn’t work so well. Plus, since you won’t read Mike Brown’s book, you should at least read NdGT’s book to understand why that statement you write on all of your comments about the 4% of astronomers is pretty silly and suggests that you don’t understand statistics very well. Which is OK, since, as a non-scientists, you are not expected to.

    Mike: Awesome job looking up stuff on wikipedia. You’re right, if Mike Brown doesn’t go around trying to correct every single thing about himself, Eris, Pluto, or the entire universe that is stated wrong anywhere on the internet it is clear that he is a fraud. You go.

    Laurel and Mike: thanks for coming back. I’ve missed you.

  6. 6 Ellie Hale September 13, 2011 at 00:25

    Also: Laurel, you are absolutely right! Brown should not be allowed to include anything about his family in his memoir. In fact, he should probably not even be **allowed** to have a family. Anything else is an affront to humans everywhere.

  7. 7 Laurel Kornfeld September 13, 2011 at 00:59

    Welcome back, Ellie. What’s it been, 9 months now? How interesting for you to claim that amateur astronomers are not “real” astronomers. If you know any history of astronomy, you would know that some of the most accomplished discoverers were and are amateurs. That includes John Goodricke, Milt Humason, and both William and Caroline Herschel before William discovered Uranus. And don’t forget Clyde Tombaugh either, at least not when he discovered Pluto in spite of having only a high school diploma. Not that I am comparing myself to any of the above people. You are disparaging a wide range of very accomplished and knowledgeable people, including many who are longtime members of Amateur Astronomers, Inc. in Cranford, NJ. I will pit experts like my teachers Al Witzgall and Mike Luciuk against any professional. Amateurs usually are generalists rather than specialists, meaning instead of knowing a lot about just one obscure area, they have a broad background in many subfields of astronomy.

    I am a graduate student in a Masters program at a respected university, meaning I am a professional astronomer in training. Are you enrolled in a formal philosophy program? I have no idea why you think your studies were pathetic, but please do not project any of your personal insecurities on anyone else.

    Interestingly, you did not address a single scientific point raised by either Mike Wrathell or me in our objection to the demotion to Pluto. Start talking scientifically instead of making personal attacks, and then we can have a conversation.

    I did read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book. While I respect him, I do not agree with his claim that the four percent of the IAU who voted in 2006 are representative of the entire organization. Interestingly, in his TV version of “The Pluto Files,” Tyson presented a much more balanced view, stating publicly that the debate is far from over. At another time, around 2009-2010, he made a statement that he never claimed our solar system has only eight planets.

    The First Amendment, which I regard as sacred, gives Brown the freedom to write whatever he wants. I would never dispute that. At the same time, others are free to criticize his writing style. The only thing I view as an affront to humans everywhere is censorship of any kind.

    So who are you, really, and if you don’t care about Pluto, as you said in a post last December, why do you get all hyped up anytime someone criticizes Mike Brown?

  8. 8 Ellie Hale September 13, 2011 at 01:54

    Laurel, Laurel, you crack me up.

    I would object to your scientific points IF EITHER OF YOU HAD ANY. You claim false authority (“I am an ASTRONOMER”) in order to fool people, and then you make assertions that are simply opinion (“Dwarf planets are a third class….”) in hopes that someone might buy some book that some day you may or may not finish.

    I hope you finish it, as I can’t wait to read it. Unlike you, I would only base criticisms of a book on actually having read it, instead of just generic rants. I believe it will be delicious. Mmmmmmm.

    • 9 Laurel Kornfeld September 13, 2011 at 02:08

      The claim that Pluto is “dead” as a planet is also an opinion. That is part of the point here. There are two legitimate ways of viewing the solar system, the dynamical and the geophysical, and neither is wrong; they just focus on different things. The notion of dwarf planets as a third class of planets is the brainchild of Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the person who originated the term “dwarf planet” back in 1991.

      I AM an astronomer; therefore, I am not trying to fool anyone. Amateur astronomers are astronomers too, as are graduate students in astronomy degree programs. And I have made scientific points regarding the weakness of the IAU definition: the fact that it could result in the same object being a planet in one location and not a planet in another location; the fact that it totally ignores exoplanets; the fact that it precludes binary planet systems in which by definition neither planet clears its orbit of the other; the fact that “clearing an orbit” is vague and could be used to exclude all planets orbiting the Sun; the fact that compositionally dwarf planets are complex worlds much more akin to planets than to shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects, and many other arguments. As of yet, you have failed to address a single one of these, preferring instead to engage in personal attacks.

      I apologize for the delays regarding my book, but trust me, late doesn’t mean never. I have read excerpts of Brown’s book online, but I have no interest in the personal stuff (I wouldn’t be interested in details of the personal lives of pro-Pluto astronomers either), and I am very put off by the whole notion “killing Pluto” notion. It is much more of an accomplishment to have discovered a planet, and Brown should emphasize that. Meanwhile, there is no shortage of pro-Pluto books out there; I suggest you read the books by Boyle and Weintraub.

  9. 10 Mike Wrathell September 13, 2011 at 05:28

    I have missed you, too, Ellie. I only wish your passion was for the replanetization of Pluto. Someday, I sincerely wish you come over from the Dark Side. Yes, Wikipedia is great. I am listed there, myself as an artist. It seems to me I recall Mike Brown referring to himself as the sole discoverer of Eris, by the way, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt, because I don’t collect his interviews from his book tour. But I am pretty darn sure he has. You seem like you have a vested interest in Mike Brown, so you might want to confirm my suspicion yourself. By the way, are you excited about New Horizons? I hope this little spat we seem to be having does not turn you off on Pluto. It deserves your love, you know.

  10. 11 Matthew R. Francis September 13, 2011 at 08:17

    If I may interject again (being the author of this blog), I respectfully ask that the comments be relevant. Mike Brown nowhere in his book claims to be the sole discoverer of any of the objects (Eris, Sedna, etc.). Both he and I consider the geophysical definition of “planet”, which I think you must have missed from this post, my previous posts on the subject, and Brown’s book.

    Brown doesn’t “hate Pluto”, and neither do I. “Killing Pluto” is a joke as much as anything. Also, we both have substantive criticisms of the IAU definition, which again you should know from my posts and Brown’s book. Perhaps I wasn’t clear on that. If not, I’ll state it plainly: I think the IAU definition of “planet” is kind of lame, but it is also possible to have a more consistent definition that excludes Pluto. In fact, I’ve even written praise for the New Horizons probe. Pluto need not be a planet to be an object of interest to study. After all, asteroids and comets are not planets in most people’s view, but few would object to studying them. They provide insight into the history and structure of our Solar System.

    This book is a memoir (with science), not a scientific textbook. You don’t have to like memoirs; that’s fair and legitimate. But to object to including personal anecdotes on principle is a misunderstanding of what the book is intending to be.

    • 12 Laurel Kornfeld September 13, 2011 at 13:47

      My problem is that because of the IAU decision and the way the media has reported it, only the dynamical planet definition is currently given credence. There is very little acknowledgment that the debate remains ongoing. Just as it is possible to have a more consistent definition that excludes Pluto, it’s also possible to have a more consistent–and broad–definition that includes Pluto and all objects large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium and in orbit around the Sun. It’s fine if you hold the view that Pluto is not a planet, but you should also acknowledge that this is not the only scientifically legitimate viewpoint.

      The “killing Pluto” thing may be a joke, but I think it’s gone too far, and it’s the wrong focus. A better one would be Brown’s discovery of a “strange new world.” Discoveries are always more exciting than “killings”; they hold the promise of scientific progress and inspire people to learn more. The idea of having “killed” Pluto sounds like it belongs in a video game and in some cases has led to confusion about Pluto’s continued existence among less informed members of the public.

      Because I have a special interest in Pluto, I have read and reviewed a large number of books on the subject, and there are many that are not quite textbooks but manage to stay focused on the science and the history of discoveries, which often does involve personal issues and rivalries (the discovery of Neptune being one of the most fascinating). However, they do not delve so much into the personal realm of either the writers or discoverers. I am stating a preference that I am not alone in holding, which is that when reading a book about astronomy, I am not interested in reading a whole memoir about marriage and kids. This is true regardless of the author’s position in the debate.

      As a feminist, I also take issue with the idea of crediting women in fields where their primary role is being married to a practitioner. Being the wife of an astronomer does not equate to being an astronomer any more than being the wife of a doctor equates to being a doctor. It’s sad, but even here in the 21st century, I have experienced discrimination as a single woman without kids, in spite of the fact that our planet is overpopulated. If writing about marriage and kids becomes the expected norm in books about astronomy, where does that leave me and my work?

      Also, as the author of this blog, I would hope you also take issue with the personal attacks against me made by Ellie Hale, which work against a climate of open discussion and debate.

  11. 13 Mike Wrathell September 13, 2011 at 14:09

    Dear Mr. Francis,

    You are the first reviewer of Mike Brown’s book who does not say he is the sole discoverer of Eris. None of the other book reviews allude to the fact that he co-discovered Eris, and the other celestial bodies that he co-discovered. I do not know how he words his contribution to their discovery in his book, because I have not read it, and I would not read it if it was the only book left on this planet. I do, however, feel my contributions to online book reviews of his book are relevant and helpful in shedding light on the actual status of Pluto, and why its downgrade was a travesty. You seem very willing to say what Mike Brown thinks. It is fine, Mr. Francis, to say what you think, and you seem like a very thoughtful and reasonable man. But I do not think you know or I know what was going on and what is going on in Mike Brown’s mind regarding his belief that he “killed” Pluto. Unfortunately, I do not think it is all joke with him. I think he is somewhat unbalanced when it comes to Pluto, if you want to know the truth. For example,he has publicly stated that Pluto huggers are liars. I hope you will not defend him on that statement. I also invite you to watch the video of the 2006 IAU General Assembly session in which Pluto was downgraded. If you need the link, I can provide it. You will see an exercise in ram-roding with raw power that would make Lord Acton wince.


    Mike Wrathell, Esq. & Artist
    Sterling Heights, Michigan, USA

  12. 14 Matthew R. Francis September 13, 2011 at 14:56

    Again, please keep the comments relevant and please avoid ad hominem attacks. If you won’t read what I have written, or won’t read what Mike Brown has written, there is no way what you write is relevant to this post. I don’t want to ban anyone, but I will if you all won’t play nicely. This blog is not a valid forum for airing a vendetta.

  13. 15 Laurel Kornfeld September 13, 2011 at 16:24

    I do not have a vendetta against anyone. I am an astronomer advocating a geophysical planet definition under which dwarf planets are a subclass of planets.

  14. 16 Mike Wrathell September 13, 2011 at 17:33

    Dear Mr. Francis,

    I don’t have a vendetta against Mike Brown, but I can see how you might think I possibly might. Also, I could see how you might think Ms.Hale might have one against Ms. Kornfeld. One could also say Mr. Brown went ad hominem when he called Pluto huggers liars in an interview. It is fair enough to wonder if I can be relevant if I chose not read a book that claims in its title to glorify in the killing of Pluto, but I think I have made some good points, points no one has even attempted to refute, I might add. I have read all your posts and your blog, Mr. Francis, and think you did a good job.

    I am glad you are a fan of New Horizons, and, I hope, like me, you are waiting on pins and needles for Bruno Sicardy’s soon-to-be-published paper in Nature Magazine that may conclude that Pluto is larger than Eris beyond any known margin of error. It appears that that is a distinct possibility, given his recent statements on the issue.


    Mike Wrathell.

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