My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I was in first or second grade, one of my homework assignments was to write about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since the my previous goal of being a police-person was shot down and laughed at, I had already been thinking on this subject for a lengthy (for a first grader) amount of time. I thought and I thought and finally, I got a great idea. I thought of something that would be fascinating to me a well as praise-worthy to my parents. When I let my parents read my essay entitled “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up,” I thought they’d be thrilled and pat my head at having such high aspirations. To my surprise, their faces darkened and my mother turned to me and said, “No! You cannot be this!”
I had wanted to be an astronomer, but my English in first grade wasn’t very good at all, so instead of ‘astronomer’ I wrote ‘astrologer.’ My parents had to look this word up in their Chinese-English dictionary. They asked me what I expected to do as an ‘astrologer.’ Still thinking I would be an astronomer, but having a vague, six-year-old understanding of the occupation, I said I would look at the stars and planets and tell people stuff. This, to their horrified minds was exactly what an astrologer of the “call me at 1800-PSYCHIC” kind did. So they forbade me from taking on this occupation and that’s how my short-lived life as a future-astronomer ended.
Luckily, Mike Brown didn’t have the same experience and not only is he a famous astronomer, but he’s a pretty good story-teller too. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is a humorous look into the chaotic years surrounding the Pluto controversy — whether it’s a planet or not. Before reading the book, I still had an almost six-year-old level of understanding of what an astronomer did. I’m now properly awed at all that scientists have discovered from looking at the sky.
When I think of planets, I think of pretty pictures taken from outer-space devices of colorful round things. What I didn’t realize was that a lot of what astronomers of Brown’s kind do is look at tons of pictures, keeping an eye out for almost untraceable movements of things that look like stars from one picture to the next. It’s amazing how much can be figured out using simple geometry and some not so simple math. I never really thought of it this way, but looking up at the sky and trying to find planets and other moving masses is kind of like an ant on the floor trying to figure out what that thing way up in the ceiling is. Except with way more distance.
How I killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is by no means an astronomy textbook, even an introductory one. But it is a pretty readable, layman’s version of what an astronomer probably does in his day to day life. I appreciated the personal stories of his growing family that Brown weaved in between his astronomical discoveries, but I wasn’t that interested in them at the end and really wanted to just read about the Pluto drama. I had no idea there were such heated feelings around whether Pluto should still be considered a planet or not.
Before reading the book, I never really questioned what exactly was a planet and even now I’m still a little hazy. But at least now, I feel a little more comfortable saying that no, Pluto is not a planet.