523: The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

by Gerard


523.4922: Tyson, Neil deGrasse. The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 176 pp. ISBN

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 520: Astronomy
  • 523: Specific celestial bodies and phenomena
  • 523.4: Planets, asteroids, and trans-Neptunian objects of the Solar system
  • 523.49: Trans-Neptunian objects
  • 523.492: Kuiper belt objects
  • 523.4922: Pluto

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Pluto Files claims to chronicle the history of the “planet” Pluto and it mostly accomplishes this feat. His history of the discovery of the last planet is a little thin, but there may not be much more to tell. Clyde Tombaugh discovered it while chasing Percival Lowell’s dream of a distant Planet X. Clyde’s find wound its way into the hearts and minds of many a schoolchild, but now there is a debate raging as to whether Pluto is really a planet at all. The bulk of Tyson’s story in confined to the last decade, when his new post as Director of Hayden Planetarium put him in charge of a new addition to the building. He decided, with the help of other scientists and a public panel on Pluto, to group planets into distinct characteristic groups: Terrestrial Planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), Gas Giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus) and Kuiper Belt Objects (Pluto included). Then all hell broke loose. The Museum, a trusted institution, had neglected to count Pluto in the number of planets that everyone had grown up learning about. The debate included almost every astrophysicist alive, the International Astronomical Union, and even third-graders. In the end, the Tyson’s treatise is more about the definition of the word “planet” than the question surrounding the properties of Pluto. And while the IAU has formally created a definition, most of the scientists involved are more concerned about cataloging the properties and new knowledge about Pluto than about what to call it.

All in all, the prose is succinct and even humorous at times. There are lengthy discussions and a fair amount of back-and-forth, bringing the opinions of many major astronomers (including Bill Nye the Science Guy). At times, the constant quotations can get a little cumbersome, causing the flow of the text to be interrupted, but Tyson competently balances the scientific questions with his own experience in the debate. There are moments, however, when his discussion of his involvement in the uproar seems more like a diatribe on his mistreatment by the press and the scientific community. One might assume (and rightly so) that Tyson was trying to get the final word in on the whole hoopla. I would have liked to see more celestial diagrams and less political cartoons. An interesting addition to the text are three appendices devoted to the lyrics of songs directed concerned with the status of Pluto (as if one song wasn’t enough). This book would be appropriate for beginners to get a quick background on the debate or amateur lovers of astronomy.