three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
By: 
Mike Brown
user_rating: 
0

A-How I Killed Pluto.epsMike Brown is a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

The Topic: Shortly after the first successful test of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer is said to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." But Mike Brown is perhaps the only scientist who could make that claim literally. When he and his team of astronomers discovered several objects larger than Pluto in the outer reaches of the solar system, their finding triggered the series of events that eventually led to the now-dwarf planet's demotion by the International Astronomical Union. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is Brown's account of those events, interspersed with his observations on life as a scientist and a first-time father.
Spiegel & Grau. 267 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780385531085

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Brown's addictions are twofold: first, finding faraway objects in the sky, and second, understanding the difference between planets and other large objects in space. In his Ahab-like search for a 10th planet, Brown would transform our understanding of what a planet is, thereby triggering a historic reexamination of Pluto's status as our ninth planet." Chuck Leddy

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Brown] leavens his scientific account with a memoir of how he discovered the joys of becoming a husband and a father during the same period that he thought he was discovering planets. It's a refreshing twist on stereotype: the scientist neither as madman nor mystic, but mensch. Even when these digressions drive the narrative afield, it's hard not to be disarmed by Mr. Brown's geeky perspective on fatherhood." James Kennedy

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Brown's] slender, cheery book gets some padding in the form of his courtship, marriage, new fatherhood and (of course) blogging about his baby, Lilah. The presence of so many doting-father asides might get grating if Dr. Brown did not communicate his excitement and happiness so well and go about describing it in such wonky, scientific ways." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Brown's] approach has a strength: [he] opens the emotional life of an actual scientist to the reader, belying the myth that he and his colleagues are automatons. But it also has a weakness: readers swept along by the thrill of a gigantic story--the discovery of a potential new planet--can be stopped by irrelevancies." M. G. Lord

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Brown's first-person account of what happened to the odd little planet at the edge of our solar system is the eminently readable and entertaining How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. In it, he blends elements of sleuthing, international intrigue, and the awe and wonder intrinsic to the exploration of space." J. David Santen Jr.

Critical Summary

Though several reviewers admitted a grudge against Brown for picking off plucky underdog Pluto, they found his memoir a charming account of a scientist's life and work. Given Brown's popularity as an instructor and lecturer at Caltech, it is perhaps unsurprising that his book is accessible and enlightening. Critics were less certain about Brown's decision to include so much of his personal life in the book. None actually said that Brown's interludes about becoming a husband and father detracted from his story, but a few asked what they really added. Others, though, felt that this personal perspective perfectly rounded out Brown's account of how he and his discoveries reshaped the solar system.