Skip to main content

The Pluto Files – Neil deGrasse Tyson ***

There’s something not right feeling about the assertion in the subtitle of this book that Pluto is ‘America’s favorite planet’. It may be true, as astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests, that Pluto is the children’s favourite because of the association with the Disney character of the same name, but I find it hard to believe that, as he suggests, it’s America’s favourite because it was discovered by an American (even if it was named by British eleven-year-old girl). I doubt if many people know this to be the case, and my suspicion is that Mars, Jupiter and Saturn would all be more popular if properly assessed. Mind you, I have real doubts about Mr Tyson’s ability to judge people, when he says ‘among all planet names… Pluto sounds the most like the punch line to a hilarious joke.’ Is this really an astronomer who has never heard a Uranus joke?
This is a fairly lighthearted book, a compendium of items about Pluto from a man who was apparently vilified as one of the early astronomers to demote Pluto from being a true planet. Personally I really can’t see what all the fuss is about – but a lot of people do, and Tyson brings this out neatly, starting with the pop culture associations of Pluto, going onto the details of its discovery, what little science there can be for such an uninteresting lump of real estate, and concluding with a long, breathless section on the de-planetization of Pluto.
The problem with this book is that the subject is, at best, quite interesting. That Tyson struggles to keep the attention reflects more about the subject matter than the writer. It doesn’t help that the book format is neither one thing nor another. At times it feels like a kids’ picture book – one of those books with fake pasted in documents and spy-type grid patterns. At others it’s more of a straight text excursion.
If you’re a solar system fan, this is a book you ought to have, without a doubt. It’s a great book on Pluto. The only question is whether most of want a great book on Pluto.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…