Why I Read It: A dedicated stargazer, with a passion for science in general.
Summary: The story of the demotion of Pluto from an insider's point of view.
My Thoughts: First, let me just say this one (what I consider to be a) fact. Astronomers have too much fun naming celestial bodies.
It's really a fascinating sidelight to the deeper story of scouring the universe for new planets, dwarf planets, comets, asteroids and the debris floating around out there clogging up the spaces in between. Tying in classical mythology to our stars is an interesting phenomenon on its own, but it makes one wonder, had the first planets not been discovered until today, would we have gone that route? Since the ancients knew "the wanderers" and gave them names they knew, would we have done the same today? Since we (many of us, anyway) don't believe in pantheons of gods, would we have gone with kings and queens? with Olympic athletes? with composers? Could the old mnemonic device (some version of My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines) have stood for "Mozart, Vivaldi, Elgar, Mahler...?
I think also that the question of astronomical classification, which is generally the crux of this book, is interesting when juxtaposed with the processes for such with biology today. The latter science has a key to work from: DNA. We know - or are slowly getting to the point where we know - where all living things fall in the great tree of life (and where that tree should be listed as well). Every year, for instance, the august ornithologists of the world announce new changes to the global bird taxonomy, with the list being shifted around to accommodate the latest learning. Astronomers don't have that luxury. In fact, a few years before this book was written, they didn't even have a formal definition of the word "planet." In other worlds, it's entirely subjective, springing solely from the human brain, though based on the soundest scientific principles they can throw at the problem.
We all know what happens in the end. Pluto loses planethood. Sentimentalists do their best to fight off logic, but it prevails. Tyson, who was in the midst of redesigning the exhibits at New York City's Hayden Planetarium, became the public face of the museum's decision not to include Pluto as a planet before the formal vote was taken. The New York Times outed the museum, and the emails and letters started to fly in (he does a great job of formally recognizing in print many of the people who took the time to send them, including, I was surprised to see, a science teacher from a local school a few towns over from my current home). And, by the way, he writes with a lot of wit, making the book a fun read.
As for me, personally, I believe the right decision was made. But I remember feeling that twinge at the time. Really? Something I've "known" my whole life is wrong? I remember seeing a small exhibit at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum announcing that Pluto was no longer playing with the big kids, and thinking, "This can't be right!" But scientific evidence is what it is. I still feel a little nostalgic now and then, but then I realize that Pluto hasn't gone anywhere, and (probably) won't in my lifetime.