Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Review of The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

(Norton, 208 pages, $23.95, January, 2009)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Readers of The Pluto Files may also enjoy discovering Is Pluto A Planet by David A. Weintraub.

Perhaps if it had not been thought to be Percival Lowell's long-sought Planet X when 24-year-old farmboy Clyde W. Tombaugh spotted it in 1930 after a heroic search.

Perhaps if it had not been named by an 11-year-old British schoolgirl.

Perhaps if Walt Disney had not given the same name to Mickey Mouse's pet canine.

Perhaps if Tombaugh had not become a beloved elder statesman after a distinguished career.

Perhaps then people would have more readily accepted the 90%-10% decision of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in August 2006 to remove Pluto from the pantheon of major planets and place it a more suitable category.

True, Pluto's new status, "dwarf planet" among the icy Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) orbiting beyond Neptune, had a distinctly politically incorrect ring. But the discovery of numerous KBOs, including one larger than Pluto, had forced the IAU to confront the fact that it had never officially defined the term "planet."

Outside of the scientific community, and to a lesser extent within it, the "demotion" of Pluto set off a storm of protest. Neil deGrasse Tyson was not surprised. As director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City's Museum of Natural History, he was at the center of a similar brouhaha five years earlier.

As he relates in The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet, American popular culture had sown the seeds "for planet Pluto to receive a level of attention that far exceeds its astrophysical significance in the solar system."

For much of the late 1990s, Dr. Tyson's major task was assuring the accuracy, accessibility, and timeliness of the science behind the exhibits in the stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space, which opened to the public on February 19, 2000. This included the treatment of the bodies of the solar system on the walkway leading to Center's focal point Hayden Sphere, which served as both a theatrical enclosure and a piece of the exhibition itself. It provided scale, representing the size of the Sun in comparison to models of the planets.

Dr. Tyson and his colleagues, recognizing that the definition of "planet" had become fluid, finessed it. "We saw no value in counting planets--or counting anything. That exercise to us seemed pedagogically and scientifically vacuous.... We looked across the solar system and asked ourselves what physical features about planets and other objects could be taken together and discussed as common properties or phenomena."

So in one spot, visitors would encounter models of the terrestrial planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. In another, they would find the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Pluto would appear elsewhere in the building. Visitors could discover its physical features and properties, along with those of other KBOs, in the Planet Zone in the Hall in the Universe.

For 11 months after the Rose Center opened, the decision seemed surprisingly uncontroversial. Then, on January 22, 2001, sharing the New York Times' front page with accounts of President George W. Bush's first full day in office, came a story by science writer Kenneth Chang headlined, "Pluto's Not a Planet? Only in New York."

The story's full text covered the decades of steadily growing doubt about Pluto's planethood as estimates of its size diminished. It explained that new data about the gas giants had removed the necessity for Planet X. It related ongoing deliberations of astronomers about how to categorize that icy world.

But the headline put the Hayden Planetarium's decision under klieg lights, and much to Dr. Tyson's chagrin, the glare washed out all nuance. "It's not easy being a public enemy," he writes. "Schoolchildren and adults alike branded me as a thoughtless, heartless Pluto hater."

Yet beneath those words, readers can almost see a wry smile on Dr. Tyson's avuncular face. It's impossible to think of anyone who respects his field and his public more than this heir to Carl Sagan's prematurely vacated position as tourguide to the Cosmos.

The Pluto Files is a delight both in content and aesthetic design. Amateur astronomers, no matter their position on the status of "America's Favorite Planet," and popular culture buffs will laugh out loud at the collection of song lyrics and cartoons inspired by the great Pluto-versy. They will smile at the photocopied letters and excerpts from other communications from elementary school children wise beyond their years. The will ponder the and mentally vote on the best mnemonics to remember the planets of the revised solar system.

Most of all, they will appreciate the warm humor of the author. They will laugh and cringe with him at the e-mail exchanges that erupted after the New York Times article and again after the IAU decision. They will chuckle at several photographs that show his good-natured yet intellectually serious tussling with colleagues over the appropriate balance between new evidence and historical nomenclature or public sentiment (and sentimentality).

And they will appreciate his serious purpose as well. In the end, it is not the definition of the term or the number of planets in the solar system that matters. Pluto remains the same fascinating celestial body as it was when first spotted and by Clyde Tombaugh, who determined it to be unique by combing through photographs of two-thirds of the sky taken over a period of 14 years.

Its historical significance earns it the permanent designation, in Dr. Tyson's words, as "the undisputed King of the Kuiper Belt." And it remains the prime target of NASA's New Horizons mission, which has recently gotten the gravitational boost from Jupiter needed to carry it to the Kuiper belt in 2015.

Scientists love science far more for the quest--its open questions and the uncharted path to discovery--than for the facts that ultimately end up in scholarly journals, popular books, and museum exhibits. The Pluto Files, with its eclectic approach and informal tone, captures that spirit better than any book in recent memory.

More than 2 years after Pluto's "demotion," the "Ask Dr. Fred" question, "Why Isn't Pluto a Planet Anymore?" remains by far the most visited page of physicist and children's author Fred Bortz's website.