Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My very educated mother just served us nine pies.

When I was a little kid, that's the mnemonic we learned to remember the order of the planets. But in 2006, members of the International Astronomical Union decided that, in fact, Pluto, the 9th planet is not a planet in the same class as the others. Controversy surrounded the decision, and a lot of the fallout came to rest on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in part because Tyson, as director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, was in many ways instrumental in helping to change the ways in which scientists think about and classify planets and the ways in which we, the general public, learn about space and our solar system.

This book gives a brief history about the discovery of Pluto and the ways in which the plucky former planet captured in particular American imagination. Tyson's still is clear and engaging as he discusses Pluto's place in popular culture, in history and science and the chronicle of Pluto's "fall from grace." It is so interesting to consider the way in which Pluto has really grabbed hold of our collective imaginations. It seemed that we did NOT want to let go of Pluto's planetary status. It seems really strange that so many people seemed to take Pluto's demotion to dwarf planet as a personal insult. Tyson speculates a little as to why this might be, why Americans in particular seemed so upset by Pluto's reclassification. Some reactions were extreme -- New Mexico and California both proposed legislation declaring that Pluto is still a planet, at least within those states. Absurd but true.

I have been working through Tyson's book Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, a series of essays about everything from the nature of knowledge to the meaning of life, and I really enjoy Tyson's easy style, but if you're expecting straight up science, you might be disappointed. I would consider these books more in the realm of cultural studies than science, although I assume that the science in the books is sound as Tyson holds a PhD in astrophysics. These books are perfect for the casual science enthusiast, someone who wants to know more but maybe isn't great at math or someone who shouldn't actually attempt chemistry because s/he has been known to set lab equipment on fire (on accident, and it was only the one time, two times, geez).

I never thought about it before I read this book, but I guess my favorite planet is Pluto. There's something endearing about the plucky little dwarf planet family, way out on the raggedy edges of our solar system, with its whackadoodle orbit. I can just imagine Pluto, Charon, Nix, Hydra and S/2011 P 1 whizzing through space. If sound could travel in a vacuum, I bet we would hear them: Wheeeeeee! Not like Saturn, with its fancy rings, or Jupiter with that big creepy red eye. *Shudder* 

One of the things I took away from reading this book is that there is an interesting human element to science that we often discount as we look at the veneer of objectivity that surrounds scientific nomenclature. The desire to name and order is a deeply human desire. Pluto is a hunk of ice and rock at the edge of our solar system. It doesn't really care about status, no more than Jupiter or Saturn lord it up because they are gas giants.I think it's important that we acknowledge this human element, because I think science, and everything else we study, from art to math, is really just a way to understand ourselves a little better.

I also love art and science are not and need not be mutually exclusive. The whole Pluto thing not only got us talking about science, but it inspired some great art. My favorite is a song by Jonathan Coulton called "I'm Your Moon," a love song from Charon to Pluto. Of course, Coulton's intro to the song is not scientifically sound, but the song is lovely nonetheless, and I hope you like it.

This article is cross posted at my blog, (Library Lass) Adventures in Reading. Check it out!

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