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The Pluto Files

A lively account of the ‘exile’ of Pluto, everyone’s favorite ex-planet.

By Heller McAlpin / January 27, 2009



To be both an expert and popularizer, especially in esoteric fields beyond most people’s ken, is to wield a measure of power. Sometimes, however, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson indicates in his wonderfully entertaining, The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet, there’s a price to pay for that power.

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As director of the Hayden Planetarium and the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Tyson inadvertently came between the public and their favorite planet with his decisions concerning the classification of Pluto in the museum’s state-of-the-art Rose Center, which opened in 2000.

In an effort to create an exhibit that would accommodate new discoveries, Tyson and his team decided to organize “the principal contents of the solar system by objects of like properties, rather than as enumerations of planets and their moons. This decision landed Pluto among the growing number of icy objects found beyond Neptune.”

In other words, Pluto was exiled.

Many viewers noticed that Pluto was missing from the models of the rocky, terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) and the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). One earnest 7-year-old sent a sketch of the missing ninth planet to help the museum correct its oversight – an adorable document respectfully reproduced in Tyson’s book.
But Tyson’s in-box filled with hate mail only after a New York Times reporter filed a front-page story, “Pluto’s Not a Planet? Only in New York,” nearly a year after the Rose Center opened.

Hell hath no fury, it seems, like people forced to alter their concept of the universe.

As a scientist and educator, Tyson – who also hosts the PBS miniseries NOVA “scienceNOW” and has written the popular books “Origins” and “Death by Black Hole” – is well-versed in enlivening his instruction with a toolbox of pedagogic tricks. In “The Pluto Files,” he uses an engaging mix of facts, photographs, cartoons, illustrations, songs, e-mails, and humor to explain what’s up (and down) with Pluto.

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