Review: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It ComingHow I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
by Mike Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming / 978-0385531085

Like many people, I watched with interest the 2006 showdown that culminated in the announcement that Pluto was no longer a "planet". I'd been taught since childhood that Pluto was a planet, and in some ways it seemed a little sad for it to be stripped of its status. Ultimately, however, the decision seemed reasonable given what very little I knew of the situation. The year came and went, Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" (a category it would share with several other small bodies), and life went on. When this book came available on Amazon Vine, I was quick to snatch it up because I was sure the in-depth story would be interesting, but if you had told me at the time that I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning madly turning pages as fast as I could read, them I would have been skeptical to say the least.

"How I Killed Pluto" is a truly delightful read, and a wonderful page-turner. Professor of planetary astronomy and author Mike Brown writes in a distinctly clear and clever manner, and the science on display here is astonishingly easy to follow - if Dr. Brown teaches as clearly as he writes, then it must be a delight to be one of his students. The book follows Brown's discoveries of several bodies in our solar system, including the "tenth planet" (for a very short time, at least!) Eris, as well as his increasingly firm opinion that the objects he is discovering are not truly planets - and, by extension, neither can be Pluto.

It's surprising to see someone with so much to gain from a looser planetary definition (as Eris' discoverer, Brown would be the only living human being to discover a planet!) so strongly and fervently fight for the opposition - it's abundantly clear throughout the book that Brown is devoted to what he sees as the science and 'rightness' of planetary definitions as opposed to the fame and attention that would naturally come with being a planet-finder. Indeed, if Brown's love of science and mathematics were not already abundantly clear from his frenzied search of the solar system for more planetoids, it would be clearly illustrated in his delightfully obsessive graphings of his daughter's first months of life - feeding times, feeding incidents (and who did the feeding!), sleeping times, and so much more!

And this is where enjoyment of the book may be different for some readers. Brown spends a great deal of time weaving his tale of astronomical discoveries closely to the story of his engagement and wedding to his wife and the birth of their first daughter. In some ways, these parts of the book really humanize the story and place it squarely back on earth instead of in the distant skies, but in other ways, I can see where the slow pacing and all the wacky newborn stories might drag on for some readers. The wife-and-daughter tales never detract from the story and did many times make me laugh out loud, but in some places they don't seem to add as much - particularly near the end when you're racing towards the controversial vote and you just want to see what happens.

Overall, "How I Killed Pluto" is that rare and wonderful thing: an educational and instructional book that also manages to be easy to understand and delightful to read. Brown's passion for astronomy shines through every page of the book, and it's impossible to not be infected by his joy and wonder in the solar system around us.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

View all my reviews


Inquisitive Raven said...

"And this is where enjoyment of the novel may be different for some readers."

Umm, did you mean to call this book a novel? I have the impression that this is a work of non-fiction (autobiography?),

Ana Mardoll said...


It is a non-fiction autobiography work, yes. I didn't mean to be unclear - the book is definitely a "novel" in the Wikipedia "book of long narrative in literary prose" sense but not so much in the "fictional narrative" sense which is, as you point out, the norm for novels. I will correct that line, and thank you. :)

Dav said...

I'm always happy to see more accessible science books - I'll add this one to my List.

J.D.M. said...

Oh, I saw this title on the Vine some time back and I wanted to snatch it up...however, I opted for different titles and by the time leftovers rolled around, they were all gone. :(

Still, it sounds like a wonderful book. Your statement, however, has me worried because I tend to shy away from books that get *too* human when they're supposed to be discussing scientific observations. But since I trust your judgement, I'm going to assume that it's just the right amount. :D

Ana Mardoll said...


He definitely walks a fine line on the family stuff. On the one hand, it was cute and humanized the story, but on the other hand he definitely cares more about his infant daughter than *I* do. ;) I think the enjoyment factor will depend on how much you mind skimming some of the later chapters - I'm a natural born skimmer when the situation calls for it, so I didn't mind too much.

The book *does* seem to be available on several online libraries, including the Philadelphia one, for what it's worth.

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