How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming; Mike Brown; Spiegal and Grau; 271 pgs; index
This book came to my attention by way of Blythe Nilson. It is not deep, but rather a slice of science life. The topic is current. Pluto has been demoted because it had to be. This was a quick and easy read, approachable by anyone.
Like life sciences, astronomy has jumped forward by leaps, especially with the passing of photographic plates in lieu of digital technology. No longer do astronomer freeze their asses off 10,000 feet up and far from anywhere, only to get clouds and rain. Like the life sciences, astronomy has leapt forward from even just a decade or two ago. Especially planetary astronomy. The fly-by shot of Pluto was an amazing feat of technology.
This book was written before the Pluto fly-by of 2105. Also, I think the IAU has since modified its definition of "planet" yet again, although without changing the conclusions of the book or the now eight planets. My only real criticism of the book is that the author weaves the birth of his daughter into the story a bit much. Forgivable, of course.
Mike Brown and his associates discovered three Kuiper Belt objects, nick named Santa, EasterBunny and Xenu. The Kuiper belt is the suburbs of the solar system (not top be confused with the Oort cloud which is even further out). This generated the well known blitzkrieg of navel gazing, semantic hair splitting and so that led to the demotion of Pluto. The IAU reminds me of the various law societies... who are ironically a law unto themselves. Labels are important and every science gets involved in them to a greater or lesser degree.
The most interesting story from the book is about Santa. The usual course when a scientist discovers something is to study it; write a paper, name it, and announce and publish together. If all this happens in a dignified timeframe, it is all good. Brown et al sat on their discovery for some months, and then scheduled a talk that referred to K40506A (K = Kuiper; 2 = 2004; 05, 06 = month and day; and the "A" is a serialization). Within a few days of announcing the talk, a Spanish astronomer named Ortiz announced that he had discovered Santa, scooping Brown. In the modern world, telescopes are operated by one or two people, images are digital, and astronomers can call up telescopes and ask for a picture of an object at such-and-such coordinates, and it is emailed to them. A database of images, ID'd by their name (K40506A) with coordinates! They smelled a rat. And when the database was queried, the found the digital fingerprints of Ortiz all over them. They has stolen the discovery! Bastards.
Scientists in general think themselves above such things . Would that it were so. People are people, lab coats notwithstanding.
All in all, two thumbs up.
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Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.