“Pluto was part of their mental landscape, the one they had constructed to organize their thinking about the solar system and their own place within it. Pluto seemed like the edge of existence. Ripping Pluto out of that landscape caused what felt like an inconceivably empty hole.”
On August 25, 2006 the International Astronomical Union met in Prague and voted on what a planet was and whether or not Pluto met those qualifications. I was about a week into my freshman year of college where I was taking an Intro to Astronomy class for a science credit so this news came up once or twice. I remember everyone I knew going nuts that something we were taught as fact throughout the first eighteen years of our lives was no longer true. There was also the emotional response because it was PLUTO, poor little Pluto.
Mike Brown killed Pluto.
Well, actually, Mike Brown didn’t kill Pluto so much as he discovered something bigger than Pluto which put the astronomy world in a bit of a conundrum. Were there 10 planets? 200 planets? Scientifically speaking what exactly was a planet…
I probably learned more about our solar system from How I Killed Pluto and why it had it coming than I did in my Intro to Astronomy class; admittedly that probably had more to do with my attendance record (hi mom!) than anything else. It is also a testament, however, to Brown’s engaging writing style. How I Killed Pluto is part memoir and part scientific journal. Brown details the years in his life leading up to the 2006 IAU conference including several discovers in the Kuiper belt which all lead to the demise of Pluto. He also details his relationship with his wife, a fellow scientist, and the arrival of his daughter in the midst of his groundbreaking discoveries.
Brown made several other discoveries before his “big” one (Xena/ Eris). One of these discoveries was the victim of scientific espionage by some Spanish astronomers who did some seriously shady things regarding the rightful discovery of an object in the Kuiper belt. Who knew the astronomy world was so cut-throat?