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>Book Review of: How I Killed Pluto

And Why It Had It Coming

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Review of How I Killed Pluto, by Author (Hardcover, 2010)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: 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.

 

 

 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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