Book Review: 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 is a Library Thing Early Reviewers advance copy book and a very enjoyable one at that.  Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, writes of the former ninth planet Pluto and it’s special appeal to Americans.  He credits this partially to the fact that it was the only “planet” in our solar system discovered by an a American (Clyde Tombaugh) , as well as cultural relics like the Disney animated dog Pluto named in the same year the planet was discovered.

Americans took recent demotion of Pluto by the International Astronomic Union in August 2006.  Tyson explains in clever and lively detail the reasons behind the demotion and better yet, the ways today’s astrophysicist classify heavenly bodies.  Tyson doesn’t see value in the traditional teaching of planets as something to be counted from one to nine and memorized with mnemonic devices.  Instead he prefers to classify things that share similar characteristics into broader groups as a better way of understanding the dynamics of the solar system.  The five groupings are:

  1. Small round & rocky planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth & Mars.
  2. The asteroid belt made up of smaller, rocky bodies, the largest being Ceres (once upon a time considered a planet).
  3. The large gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
  4. The Kuiper belt – small, icy bodies of which Pluto is king.
  5. The distant Oort cloud of comets.

Under Tyson’s direction the Haden Planeterium reopened in 2000 with the Solar System arranged in these groups rather than the simplistic nine-planet model.  This became controversial after a 2001 New York Times article documented the “omission” of Pluto from the planets.  As a result, Tyson received lots of hate mail and some interesting correspondence from children.

This book works well not just because it’s educational, but also because it’s funny.  Tyson himself writes in a humorous, engaging style.  The book is chock full of illustrations including many editorial cartoons about the demotion of Pluto and the aforementioned letters and drawings sent to Tyson.

I highly recommend checking out this book if you have any interest in science and astronomy.  It’s a quick read, I pretty much read it in one sitting, but I learned a lot.

The Pluto Files by Neil Degrasse Tyson. W.W. Norton & Co. (2009), Hardcover, 224 pages