Tyson: The Pluto Files (2)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Pluto Files : The Rise and Fall of America‚Äôs Favorite Planet. New York : W.W. Norton, 2009. 194 pages; includes bibliographical references and index.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's The Pluto Files is a humorous essay on the life and times of the former planet. It includes the cultural phenomenon surrounding its discovery. Tyson is an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History and is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.

The Pluto Files is an 8.5" x 6.5" book filled with bold colors and lots of cartoons. It is written for the layperson so I did not have any trouble understanding it. Each chapter begins with a two page spread in a bold blue color and a cartoon, which is what attracted me to the book in the first place.

Tyson discusses how Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh on on February 18, 1930 and named by the 11 year old granddaughter of librarian Falconer Madan, who had many astronomers as friends. She suggested Pluto because other planets were named after mythological figures and Pluto had not been used before. Pluto was known as the god of the dead and the underworld, the realm of darkness. After all, what else could there be 4 billion miles from the sun other than darkness? Shortly after its discovery Walt Disney named one of his characters Pluto.

Most of the book is devoted to the fallout from a New York Times article about the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt by members of the International Astronomical Union. The article was written one year after the vote which didn't garner any media attention at the time. Tyson received hate mail from school children, teachers, and fellow scientists. This change in Pluto's status would require that all school textbooks be rewritten and no one seemed to be happy about that.

Tyson proposes that the placement of the planets in the solar system be taught in a different way than the rote memorization people of my generation were accustomed to. There are 5 classes of objects that orbit our sun. The first four planets, the terrestrial planets, are separated from the gaseous planets by an asteroid belt. The Kuiper Belt follows the outer, gaseous, planets and beyond that is the Oort Cloud of comets. This is simple enough even for me, with my D grades in the sciences, to remember. It is a thoughtful way of looking at our solar system, given all of the new knowledge that we have attained since 1930 when Pluto was discovered.

The Pluto Files is a lovely book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Tyson must be a fabulous teacher because even I learned something from this book. This is a must read.

-- Notes by VS

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