How I Killed Pluto, by Author (Hardcover, 2010)|
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Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This book provides great insight, from the astronomer's viewpoint, of a branch of science that has spawned countless movies, books, television shows--both fiction and non-fiction. This branch of science inspired a now iconic speech given by President Kennedy at Rice University, in which he challenged the nation to send men to the moon and bring them safely back to Earth.
That discipline of science, of course, is astronomy. This book details a series of events in the life of astronomy Mike Brown, and it centers on the concept of what a planet is. The answer isn't a matter of semantics, and by the end of this book the reader understands why.
Well written and factually accurate, this book takes us into the work and personal life of a now famous astronomer. Brown explains how and why he ended up being an astronomer, and he helps the reader see the relevance of astronomy to our everyday lives. We get to see behind the curtain, too. Astronomers are actually human.
Pick the characteristic that makes a person most outstanding in his/her field, and you find that same characteristic annoying at times. Just as you want your accountant to be "anal retentive," you find this same characteristic keeps that person from being the life of the party. The attributes that make a person a great engineer also make that person get under the skin of other people.
In the case of an astronomer, it really helps to be obsessive. Otherwise, you're likely to give up because the "results" are so rare. A person who needs instant gratification is unlikely to last as an astronomer. We see Brown is an obsessive person, and he even points this out. He's obsessive about his work, and he's obsessive about his wife and daughter. The possessiveness about his daughter is probably humorous to most people (being an engineer and MBA myself, I find this behavior "normal" but realize most other people do not), especially when you read about the charting of data online.
My primary goal when I read about astronomy is to become more informed on the science of it. I hadn't expected to be informed on the human side of it, intrigued, and entertained. But that's what this book delivers.
We find in here, for example, a conflict arising from primate dominance instincts. You may recall the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which an ape throws a bone and it tumbles over and then morphs into a space station in 2001 (my recollection may be a bit inaccurate due to time, but that's the gist of it). This symbolism wasn't there by accident.
By coincidence, I was listening to an audiobook on primate behavior when I started this book and another audiobook "The Ape in the Corner Office" as I finished it. The two audiobooks explain perfectly some of the events that Brown relates. Basically, even astronomers will sacrifice science to get their primal primate needs met. The same problem exists in many other areas of science. This truth exposes us to dangerous ground, intellectually.
If you examine that collection of fiefdoms / monkey tribes known as the US Federal Govt, you find this primal primate behavior drives everything. Scientists in this environment are basically there for window dressing, seldom being listened to by the top apes. In the typical large corporation, same thing.
The whole "Is Pluto a planet" question is easy to answer scientifically. However, getting a logical answer made official after Brown's discovery of "the tenth planet" almost did not happen. Brown provides both sides of the story, here. Actually, there are more than two sides; think in terms of a polygonic shape.
In the end, Brown did get the ruling body of astronomical nomenclature to adopt a logical, scientific, supportable answer. In this book, Brown shows how he did it and how it almost did not happen. This book is a quick read, even though it's just over 250 pages. After about the first third of the book, the pace accelerates and I had a hard time putting it down past that point.
This book consists of 13 chapters, a prologue, an epilogue, acknowledgements, and an index. The copy I read was an advance copy printed about four months before the official release date. Normally, I find mechanical errors all throughout such a pre-release. I guess it's because Brown is an astronomer (thus obsessive and anal-retentive) that I cannot recall a single error. Contrast that to the typical non-fiction release, and we have an object lesson in just how competent Brown is when it comes to getting details right. Even details that are not in his particular field.
I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in what it might be like to be a scientist.