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Sunday, December 11, 2011

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

My latest audio book was How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown. This is non-fiction by an astronomer who played an instrumental role in Pluto being demoted from planet-hood.

The book's focus is largely on the discovery of Eris, the "dwarf planet" that's slightly bigger than Pluto, although it also spends time on earlier discoveries that Brown and his team made of other objects orbiting in the Kuiper Belt. The story culminates with how Pluto was voted out at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague.

As I've mentioned before, I have an interest in astronomy and one of the grade school dreams was to be an astronomer one day. I even took an intro to astronomy class in college. I'll confess that I didn't like Pluto being demoted. Maybe Saturn and Neptune are my favorite planets, but hey, Pluto is pretty cool, right? How could they vote it out after all these years? But as I listened to the arguments against Pluto, well, they made sense. I wish they hadn't, but there you go.

I found the book overall to be interesting. I enjoyed hearing about the discoveries of large objects in the Kuiper Belt and the stories behind them. I liked hearing about the steps the team went through to verify and study these objects before announcing them and the intrigue that surrounded the object nicknamed Santa added drama and a sense of indignation that another astronomer nefariously tried to steal the discovery from this team at Cal Tech.

But as fascinating as I found all the astronomy stuff to be, I can't recommend the book wholeheartedly. Brown wasted a ton of space talking about his first child. Some sections of Lila talk went on so long, my eyes were rolling back into my head. If I wanted to hear baby/children stories, I would have bought a book about that topic. I wanted to hear astronomy. His editor should have done a hard pruning and encouraged him to write more about Eris or anything else associated with astronomy and much less "indulgent parent gushing over child" stuff. A little bit of personal information is fine, it makes the author more human, but the extended stretches of stories about how long Lila slept at night, how many times she ate, etc were not even remotely interesting. The biggest disadvantages to audio books is how hard it is to skip the tedious parts.

So if you're interested in how Pluto was demoted, I'd recommend buying the paper version of this book for easy skipping of all the baby/child talk. Without that, there is a very interesting core that focused on astronomy and provided a compelling argument for tossing our ninth planet out of the classification.

A qualified thumbs up.