“to pluto/to be plutoed: to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet.”
Talk about science with me for five minutes, and I’m going to bring up Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Why? BECAUSE HE’S AMAZING. If you don’t believe me, it’s ok. You don’t have to. That’s fine. But keep reading. (Disclosure: Because this book is so finely and intricately layered with good things, a lot of the post is going to be about how and why I relate to it.)
What I love about Dr. Tyson is his ability to bring crazy-complex-science stuff to life for the average scientific idiot like myself. Growing up in a very conservative Christian environment and attending a fundamentalist Baptist school since 3rd grade, science was explained as God doing some great stuff. God made the stars, God made the dinosaurs, God made us, and God is pretty awesome by doing it all in 6 days then taking a nap on Day 7. That was pretty much it until my Advanced Physics class my junior year where all of a sudden there was a REASON and a FORMULA for things like CONDENSATION. I initially fought so hard not to take this class because Mathematics is not my friend, especially when it comes to story problems, and according to my friends who had already taken Physics, this class was full of super-duper complicated story problems.
But my parents pretty much forced me. And now I’m glad. Even though I wouldn’t readily admit it as a 16 year old, Physics (and then Chemistry the following year) was AWESOME. Yet still everything was, “And we have God to thank for this; isn’t it remarkable?” And that was good enough–until college, at the infamous Bob Jones University, where, I have to say, the majority of my classes were pretty tough, and I learned a lot.
Suddenly, the same-ol’-“God made it so; we don’t question it,” line no longer satisfied me. After college was over, and I was out in “the World,” and fighting depression and not wanting to come out to my family because I thought they would stop speaking to me, I went through a LONG period of agnosticism…
…and rediscovered an insatiable appetite for SCIENCE.
And who was at the forefront of this discovery? Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. His humor, wit, and unapologetic approach toward fostering creative and critical thinking skills resonates throughout all his works, and The Pluto Files (The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet) is no different.
For those who don’t know, elementary schools in the mid-90s (and before) taught that there are 9 planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas!). Pluto was discovered in the 1930s by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh who was looking for the mythical Planet X. It was big, BIG news, and a solid astronomical win for the land of the free, home of the brave.
But Pluto’s classification as a planet, as astronomers learned more in recent decades about our solar system, presented more obstacles than anything else. A growing number of scientists were uncomfortable classifying Pluto with the rest of our planets due to its itty bitty size and its makeup neither as a terrestrial planet or a gaseous planet but as an icy planet, more like a comet in its composition.
When the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History opened a new planetary display in February 2000, Pluto was absent. One year later, a New York Times columnist wrote an article whose headline read: “Pluto Not a Planet? Only in New York!” and pinned the decision on Dr. Tyson.
The American public went wild, flooding Dr. Tyson’s email and voice mail inboxes, writing letters, essays, songs, poems, etc about why Pluto should be a planet still.
Just to be clear, there has been an official vote, you guys. Pluto is not a planet. The book explains why. Dr. Tyson has devoted several chapters to explaining why this is. He also includes chapters with titles such as “Pluto in Culture,” “Pluto in History,” and “Pluto in the Elementary School Classroom,” all the while maintaining an amused optimism and including comic strips, pictures, and scanned-in letters from 3rd graders. But the message is clear: Nostalgia and romanticism are not adequate grounds for denying scientific processes. Science is a field of discovery, and learning new things, declassifying and reclassifying–that’s exciting! Because it means we are learning MORE!
And that’s why I love Dr. Tyson. He encourages a passion for learning. He speaks out against the hijacking of science by the conservatives and the Creationists and the radical fundamentalism of various churches and the apathy of modern society. He beseeches his readers to find a better way to develop that insatiable curiosity about the world we exist within by throwing out rote memorization. “Imagine a solar system curriculum that begins with the concept of density,” he says. “A big idea for third graders, but not beyond their grasp. Rocks and metals have high density. Balloons and beach balls have low density. . . At no time are you counting things. At no time are you worried about the definition of a taxonomic category. At no time are you left in search of a mnemonic on the premise that to understand the solar system you must memorize the proper names for things. Eventually, you might be curious.”
Even though this book is a collection on Pluto, the truth of it is a vision of developing a fully-fledged scientific literacy. As Dr. Tyson said in a 2010 interview with NPR on this topic, “It’s about: How do you think? That doesn’t have to come from an institution, it comes from your trajectory through life and whether your appetite for learning, whether your urge to query the unfolding of nature around you is nurtured or quelled.”
Get out there. Look at the sky. Examine a leaf. Watch this hilarious video (part of the deplutoed aftermath!) And read this book.
About the Author
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist who specializes in star formation and galaxy evolution, and is the head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
He earned his B.A. in Physics from Harvard University and received his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Columbia University. He was appointed in 2001 and 2004 by then-President George W. Bush to serve on the committees for commissions to study the Future of Aerospace and “Moon, Mars, and Beyond” respectively.
Dr. Tyson continually strives to bring scientific understanding to the American public and appeared as the host of PBS’s program NOVA Science NOW and the FOX Network’s recreation of Carl Sagan’s iconic program, COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey. He currently is the host of StarTalk Radio, a weekly podcast that combines celebrities with fun and intelligent conversation. In addition to The Pluto Files, Dr. Tyson has authored such titles as Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, and Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.
Have you read this book or any other books by this author? What do you think? Did this review pique your interest? Let me know!