The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

6,411 ratings - 3.88* vote

When the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History reclassified Pluto as an icy comet, the New York Times proclaimed on page one, "Pluto Not a Planet? Only in New York." Immediately, the public, professionals, and press were choosing sides over Pluto's planethood. Pluto is entrenched in our cultural and emotional view of the cosmos, and Neil When the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History reclassified Pluto as

... more

Book details

Paperback, 208 pages
September 2nd 2014 by W. W. Norton Company

(first published January 19th 2008)

Original Title
The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
ISBN
0393350363 (ISBN13: 9780393350364)

Community Reviews

Bradley

Like all of Tyson's books, it's very well written, explaining any number of difficult subjects with clarity and ease, but unfortunately, with this subject, we devolve into a catalogue of cultural significance for the poor demoted Pluto and a very long list of rather humorous emails and letters all sent to Tyson because of his role in the decision.

If that's what you're looking for, then, by all means, enjoy this book!

But if you're looking for an in-depth rather than an adequate focus on Pluto rather than our cultural reactions to the planet, then perhaps you should look elsewhere.

I'm not saying this book wasn't fun... and the politics of science and all those pooooooor schoolchildren writing Tyson was both humorous and slightly off-putting at the same time... but it wasn't so much about science as it was about justifying (rightly so, in my opinion,) the need to pluto Pluto. RIP.

Or rather... go play with your new Kuiper buddies. ;)

Trish

I wanted to read something by Neil deGrasse Tyson for a long time. I like how he can break complex matters up and present them in a way that children and laymen can understand them (there is a famous quote saying that you yourself have only understood a matter if you're capable of explaining it in simple terms).

This is probably the lightest of books by this author and people should know that going it. It's "only" about Pluto and that whole mess after it got declassified from "planet" to "dwarf planet".

Seriously though?! I don't know what the problem is. In fact, I didn't even know about all the controversy and the backlash until I saw an interview about three weeks ago in which deGrasse Tyson made jokes about it! Sure, the declassification itself was on the news here as well, but it was backed with scientific reasons so nobody had a real problem with it. It just meant that the old mnemonic rhyme didn't work anymore. It's the way of science: it's not infallible and theories/classifications/procedures have to be adapted or even abandoned, deal with it! *shrugs*

In the US, however, people apparently lost their shit and had to exaggerate again.

Thus, this book is full of letters the author received from school children to their teachers and other adults, of articles and other stuff in which deGrasse Tyson was blamed and even downright attacked (almost treated as if he had killed Pluto, in fact). It also contains a lot of cartoons from around the time the declassification took place. One of them is a real gem:

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

However, the book is not only about pop culture and social backlash, it's also about Pluto's history and some scientific background about the dwarf planet, though I have to admit that the history and science could have been a little more dominant.

Overall, it's a funny book (yes, I'm laughing at other people's stupidity, sue me) that has a nice design and is easy and fast to read. Nothing like a real science book but that is also neither its purpose nor what it was advertised as.

Kaethe Douglas

Here's a topic that isn't often covered: how museums design their exhibits. You know what else isn't often covered: how science happens. There are myriad books about discoverers and discoveries, and many about new fields as they develop. But this is the only time I can recall reading a book on the evolving science behind an issue like Is Pluto a planet? And although the book isn't specifically targeting a young readership, I think it could be wonderfully popular with middle school readers, because 1) Neil deGrasse Tyson is amusing 2) he is very good at explaining things, and 3) students are featured commentators.

I'm not going to try to summarize the book, because it's a quick read, and highly enjoyable, and is itself a summary of more than a hundred years of astronomy. I loved it, as did my middle-school child who wants to design robots for NASA one day.

Word of warning, though: don't read the absurdly long photo captions if you're actually reading the text.

Library copy

Ken

ugh... awfully light book on what really be a weighty tome. felt like a long article in time magazine or something, where it might scratch the surface of a subject, but you don't really get a whole understanding of the topic. filled with way too many 'extras': political cartoons, appendixes of song lyrics, full page portraits of the little girl who suggested the name, etc... i mean seriously, just get on with it. when you remove the quotes and pictures and figures, it's what, maybe like 50 pages or so, of a very large font. cheaply designed as well, almost as if it was actually designed in microsoft word.

oh, and content? author seems really defensive at times. what did he expect, really. it was his decisions at the american museum of natural history that more or less got the controversy going.

now, i was always pro-pluto, but i was looking forward to reading a hefty tome on the reasoning behind the reclassification. what i got what was an amateurish-feeling publication.

i say skip it and read wikipedia instead.

Vonia

I admit I did not thoroughly read this. I am not a science person at all (Yes, I realize I appear to be Asian). Most of the information went over my head. I recognize that Tyson is not only one of the foremost scientists today, but also one of the more easily understood ones. I suppose I am that dense when it comes to the hard sciences. Give me psychology, sociology, philosophy, I would stun you with my brain. Start giving me numbers and symbols, the solar system, energy, elements, gravity, I will fade into the background. It is saying something, then, that at least the vague themes discussed were not lost on me. Maybe one day I will invest a lot more time and effort into studying this, but until then the magnificent illustrations and Tyson's picture with Pluto the Dog made my day.

Dj

deGrasse Tyson proves that while he might not be the smartest man in the United States, he is one of the best scientist at making what at first glance could be a daunting project for the uninitiated to read both understandable and enjoyable. With this the second of this Astrophysicists books and it has determined me to read anything that I can find under his pen. His delivery makes it easy to read some of the most complex subjects in a clear and easy to read manner.

While this book is about the discussion/argument on whether or not Pluto is a planet. It also brings out the more important and for my own part the lack of solid definition of what a planet is. While the emotion seems to be centered on Pluto, which I must admit if I was ever asked would probably have been listed as my favorite planet, and since it is now called a Dwarf Planet, could still be that. This bias is only due to reading a book on the search for Planet X when I was in Grade School. This book also touches on what to define the other occupants of our Solar System. Since Jupiter is so obviously different from Earth a change of nomenclature certainly wouldn't be out of hand.

While the author stated early on that he was in favor of demoting Pluto from a planet, he doesn't present a one sided discussion of the case and, with a few exceptions, presents those on both sides of the argument with an even hand. The descriptions of some of the emails and letters he received in the process of this debate go a long way to adding a sense of the unreal as well as a great deal of humor on the subject.

All in all, whether you care if Pluto is a planet or not, this is a fun read. I recommend it highly.

Heidi Burkhart

Everything that you could ever want to know about Pluto. I think it may be an effective teaching aid if teachers used excepts in their lessons.

Carolyn Stein

Another guilty pleasure. Neil deGrasse Tyson always writes well. This time he is less concerned with science education than he is with describing the shared cultural mania that resulted from rebranding Pluto a plutoid.

The story begins with the fallout of the exhibit he put together at the Hayden Planetarium in the new Rose Center for Earth and Space. His team presented the planets as members of families of object with similar properties rather than as orbs to be memorized. Pluto was firmly placed amongst the Kuiper Belt objects.

This exhibit launched a rancorous debate on whether Pluto should be designated as a planet or something else after a headline in the New York Times read: "Pluto's Not a Planet? Only in New York". Surprisingly the public took sides in the debate and he received hate mail about his contribution to the discussion from elementary school children and others around the world. He reports that he was "branded a public enemy of Pluto lovers the world over".

It is a very entertaining read and laugh-out-loud funny in spots. He describes the history and discovery of Pluto, what is known about the planet itself, and he describes the viewpoints of the various sides in the scientific and cultural debate quite well. He quotes headlines, comics, and cites other sources that illustrates the zeitgeist surrounding the demotion of Pluto.

My favorite bit comes toward the end of the book:

"Meanwhile, those people in society who would credit or blame the cosmos, and not themselves, for their financial affairs and love life were split on what impact an official statement to demote Pluto would have on their horoscope casting. The day after the IAU vote, a story in the Wall Street Journal by Jane Spencer appeared, under the title “Pluto’s Demotion Divides Astrologers.” The widely reprinted article cites the American Federation of Astrologers and the Astrological Association of Great Britain as standing firmly by Pluto, asserting that the icy orb is a full-blown planet, maintaining a powerful pull on our psyche, despite the IAU vote to the contrary. Then comes my favorite line:

"'Whether he’s a planet, an asteroid, or a radioactive matzo ball, Pluto has proven himself worthy of a permanent place in all horoscopes,' says Shelley Ackerman, columnist for the spirituality Web site Beliefnet.com.

"The article goes on to quote Ms. Ackerman criticizing the IAU for not including astrologers in its decision. It further quotes Eric Francis, of Planetwaves.net, which represents a subgroup of these medieval prognosticators known as minor-planet astrologers: 'This is a moment that I’ve been waiting for for a long time,' Francis remarks as he welcomes Ceres, Eris, and Charon to the ranks of dwarf planets, granting horoscope charts extra ways for believers to cede control of their lives to the universe."


I cannot see reading the book again. It's really not the sort of book you plan to go back to, but I don't regret a minute of the enjoyable time I spent with it.

Amanda

Tyson is always a favorite guest on The Daily Show and this book was discussed on his last interview with Jon Stewart. Library to the rescue!

There are 9 chapters to this fairly short book, all done with wit and an obvious love of science. Tyson goes over Pluto's history, how Pluto was received in our culture, and the descent of how Pluto lost his status as our 9th planet.

Apparently Americans really love Pluto, not only because of it's association with Disney's dog, but because an American discovered Pluto back in 1930 by New Mexican Clyde Tombaugh, a 24 year old farmboy. Tombaugh lived to his 90s to see how Pluto was about to be reclassified and fought it tooth and nail. Ergo, America discovered a planet and it shouldn't be taken away.

The trouble with planets is...a definition for planets was never ever set in stone. In the '00s, the International Astronomical Union began devising a concrete definition for a planet. In 2006, it was determined that Pluto did not meet the new definition - mostly because it didn't clear its own orbit of debris.

This is an excellent book that makes science a lot easier to understand and offsets the jargon with comical letters from outraged children. Tyson has an opinion at the end that suggests a new way of teaching kids about the solar system so that its not only planets that get their day in the sun...so to speak.

Bry

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was voted Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by people magazine - who would have known such a stud muffin was also an crazy intelligent, funny, and witty writer?!

This book details the history of Pluto's place in both science and people's hearts from the time of it's discovery and naming as a planet all the way to its demotion to a dwarf planet within the Kuiper Belt. Plus it is full of satirical comics and extremely angry and often misspelled letters from damn near homicidal third graders.

If you have ever had a soft spot for the tiny little underdog of a planet or was just curious as to how and why a topic centered around pure science was able to knock 'Brangelina' and Iraq from the front page of the news then you should read this book.

Who knew an astrophysicist could speak/write like a normal human being - plus be totally funny to boot?!

Topics