To kill a planet, you’d think it would take something along the lines of a moon-size space station with a giant superlaser. But astronomer Mike Brown did it with a Ph.D. from Berkeley and a 48-inch telescope.
In spite of its name, How I Killed Pluto isn’t really a tale of planetary murder; it’s the story of the author discovering the first new object larger than Pluto in the solar system in 75 years. The detection of this icy orb, dubbed Eris, stirs up the controversy of exactly what defines a planet—a $64,000 question that ultimately leads to Pluto’s demise, or rather, its demotion to the ranks of “dwarf planets.”
Brown’s repeated attempts circumscribe the planetary help the reader keep up with the science, but it’s also a necessity of the sparse plot. The author makes it clear that the actual work of searching for new worlds, like most scientific pursuits, is rather tedious—point telescope, look at pictures of stars, repeat for years—so diversions from the seemingly Sisyphean task are much appreciated. Likewise, details about how Brown courted his wife and the birth of his daughter are also enjoyable, often more engrossing than the struggles of planet-hunting.
Oprah-worthy subplot aside, this book belongs firmly on the science shelves, as it’s clearly aimed at nerdier readers. The prose is simple and endearing; those who enjoy the subject will find an unexpectedly sweet story of parenthood and family wrapped in a story about the downfall of a frosty little world. But anyone lacking an interest in astronomy will find the book as engrossing as an AP Biology text.