The smut rag that is Mike Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming has been inducing existential crises the world over for more than a decade.
In it, Brown makes two things abundantly clear: Pluto is not a planet, and he thinks your childhood was a complete sham. He seems blithely unaware of the role Pluto played in our collective, cherubic upbringings, and staunchly unwavering in the face of protests. Like Santa, Saturday morning cartoons, and the blinding tang of Colt 45, Pluto is the stuff of childhoods gone right. How dare he, then, be arrogant enough to “scientifically prove” that Pluto is not a planet?
With the malice of a hedonistic devil worshiper, Brown blatantly disregarded our emotional investment in a nine-planet solar system in 2005, when he declared that Pluto was simply a giant hunk of ice, a “dwarf-planet,” one of the largest jewels in the crown that is the Kuiper Belt (a ring of small interplanetary bodies that’s 200 times the size of the asteroid belt).
The scientific community was rocked in the wake of Brown’s sacrilege, from his fellow astronomers right down to your grade school educators (who were proven to be nothing more than charlatans).
Twelve years after Brown’s “discovery,” the public has yet to forgive him.
In Case I’ve Been Unclear, Mike Brown is the Worst
Mike Brown’s quest to murder your childhood began back in the late 90s when he set out to find objects beyond Pluto (but still within our solar system). He was repeatedly told his efforts were in vain, given how it was conclusively proven in 1970 that there weren’t any objects beyond that weird little planet. But in 2005 Brown did the unthinkable … nay, the diabolical … when he discovered a tenth planet–a larger planet than Pluto, even–that he named Eris, far beyond Pluto.
His find ignited a firestorm of controversy that riled the usually docile world of astronomy. That’s because, after much debate, Eris wasn’t classified as a planet at all. In fact, Eris’ discovery (and eventually a dozen more planet-like bodies beyond Pluto) proved, instead, that Pluto was simply one of a series of “dwarf planets” on the fringes of the solar system.
There are dozens of these dwarf planets. Hundreds, maybe. So not only was Pluto not a planet anymore (as we’d believed for the past 75 years), but Pluto wasn’t even special. At all.
Thanks, dick. What are we supposed to do with this information? How are we to process this? What am I supposed to tell my children when they ask me if Pluto is really a planet or not? Are you trying to make me lie, Mike? Do you want me to lie to my kids? (Important Note: I don’t have kids.)
… aaaaaaaand scene!
“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.” — Mike Brown, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
Relax and Remember That Pluto Doesn’t Actually Matter in the Slightest
In case you’d forgotten the insane reactions to Pluto’s demotion back in 2006, let the last 400 words serve as a dramatization of how pissed people were. They’re still mad about it in 2017. A group of NASA scientists have proposed a new definition of “planet” just to maintain Pluto’s status as one of the nine most important bodies in our solar system, despite the fact that Pluto’s planethood has absolutely no bearing on anything that will ever happen to anyone, and it appears we have found something 5000 times the size of Pluto past the Kuiper Belt.
Lives will go on as planned, uninterrupted, unfazed. Your children won’t suffer emotional retardation or clinical depression at the thought of an eight planet system. Mike Brown is nothing more than a genuinely nice guy, perhaps the most accomplished astronomer in the last 90 years.
I just … I don’t get it. It’s just a planet, people. Get over it. You are arguing over nomenclature. Pluto is still out there, doing it’s weird, elliptical thing, pretty much irrelevant to your life in every possible way. It is what it’s always been. It’s just called something slightly different.
If, like me, you’ve gotten over the shock and have returned to a world where eight planets is just fine, you’ll see that How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is an engaging account of the most tumultuous year in modern astronomy.
The book isn’t really about Pluto, though; it’s largely about Brown’s search for a tenth planet and the politics of planet classification. That sounds mind-numbingly mundane, but Brown is somehow able to tell a fascinating story of his discovery of a dozen other planet-like bodies within our solar system (which is a remarkable achievement, and the true takeaway from the book).
“Finding out that something you have just discovered is considered all but impossible is one of the joys of science.”
How I Killed Pluto Review
So why should you read How I Killed Pluto? Mike Brown, basically. His writing is surprisingly strong, captivating, even funny. At no point does the narrative get in the way of the science, or vice versa. I have little doubt that Brown could become the next Bill Bryson if he wanted it, with his ability to translate complicated scientific ideas for wide, (relatively) uneducated audiences. The science on display in How I Killed Pluto is astonishingly easy to follow.
But what’s ultimately so fascinating about this book is how it illustrates the scientific process of elimination, the importance of being correct over being comfortable–a concept that feels novel in our modern political climate.
It’s incredibly refreshing to watch someone with so much to gain from a looser definition of what constitutes a planet argue so fervently for its opposition (as Eris’ discoverer, Brown would be the only living human being to discover a planet). As a planet-discoverer in our solar system, Mike Brown would have been famous. Instead, he followed the facts, killed a planet, and went down in infamy (in certain circles, at least).
But, mostly, How I Killed Pluto will show you how much luck is involved with greatness. To be a successful astronomer you have to be smart, work hard, and, more than anything, really, be extremely fortunate. You have to have equally dedicated and brilliant colleagues to assist with your ideas, the support to carry out your research, and access to the best equipment and generous assistants. No one makes these discoveries on their own.
Dr. Brown doesn’t romance the life of the astronomer; in fact, he does almost the exact opposite. He takes great pain to illustrate the toil involved in this line of work: the unreasonably odd hours, the infuriating weather concerns, the months and years involved with pouring over maps and plates to determine if those tiny, infinitesimal specks moved or not. They’re obsessive creatures, astronomers. With extremely understanding spouses.
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is, strangely, a page-turner. I’d recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy, If the synopsis strikes you as something worthy of a read, I’d absolutely encourage you to pick this book up.
Question for the Comments Section
Do you have any great scientific book book recommendations? Enlighten me!