by Neil deGrasse Tyson

W.W. Norton


194pp/$23.95/February 2009

The Pluto Files
Cover by Designworks Group

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

On January 20, 1980, after a year or so of correspondence, I met Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto.  We continued our correspondence for another four years.  On November 24, 2008, I met Neil deGrasse Tyson, the man whose actions with regard to Pluto lead to a highly public movement to "demote" Pluto from the ranks of the planets.  The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet is Tyson's explanation for the uproar that his actions sparked.

As I learned when I met Tyson, and from having seen him on various television shows, he is a very intelligent and engaging man.  This comes across in The Pluto Files, which takes a mostly light-hearted look at the uproar following a revamping of the exhibits at the Hayden Planetarium and culminating with the 2006 IAU vote on the definition of a planet. Tyson notes the controversy, but also points out that one of the most important things it did was to get people thinking and talking about the solar system in a manner which had not previously occurred, particularly in the classroom, where the methodology became more important than just learning the facts.

There is a certain, surprising, amount of bias in Tyson's writing.  Although Tyson claims throughout the book, as he told me in New York, that he has "no vested interested in the outcome of the IAU vote" about Pluto's planethood, throughout The Pluto Files, those who support Pluto's planethood are described in emotional terms as "brazen" and "unyielding." Supporters of the movement to reclassify Pluto are seen in a much more forgiving light. It is, perhaps, important to note that Tyson knows many of the people of whom he is writing on a personal level, but his familiarity with them and his working relationship does not always come across in the text of the book.

Perhaps one of the key phrases in the book comes at the end of chapter six, in which Tyson notes that Mark Sykes has called for "consensus. And until one is obtained, nobody should be defining anything." (p.129) Tyson does note that generally scientific decisions are made by consensus rather than a vote, but he does indicate that the vote at the IAU should stand, although he feels "a more enlightened solution to the problem awaited us all." (p.158)  At the same time, he notes the disagreement some astrophysicists have with the definition, although in general he downplays those.  There is an implication in the book, although not highlighted, that the IAU may revisit the decision at a future meeting, perhaps after the New Horizons probe reaches Pluto in 2015.

When the focus turns to the "demotion" of Pluto, as Tyson does throughout the book, it also turns away from his initial intention with the redesign of the exhibit, notably to look at like objects and compare them, and contrast them with other objects which have a different set of features and properties. This refocusing, while it provides a context for what has happened, does a disservice to Tyson's original argument for the reclassification of Pluto to be grouped with the similar Kuiper Belt Objects. His focus should be on things such as his statement "Why not think of the solar system as families of objects with like properties, and the cut through these properties is yours to take." (p.154)

Having seen Tyson on television, read his book, and spoken to him in person, I find that the most compelling explanation he gave (which does appear within the pages of The Pluto Files) for what the Hayden Planetarium was doing in its remodeling, was the one he gave me when we were talking, not in a forum for the public, where he found the need to be entertaining, but when we were just two people discussing what had happened. The Pluto Files is an interesting and entertaining book, even if it clearly represents a particular view of the topic as unyielding as the views Tyson ascribes to his "opponents."

And, since Tyson talks about mnemonics, just remember, Many Very Educated Men Just Screwed Up Nine...

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