For 76 years, Pluto retained its title as the ninth of nine planets in our solar system, but its place in the pantheon of celestial bodies was never really secure. For much of that time (1930-2006), its planetary manhood was questioned, thanks to its small size, and the fact that it had more in common with comets and asteroids than its brethren. Finally, on August 24, 2006, Pluto was formally demoted to “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union, a decision that drew the ire of sentimental Pluto fans the world over.
In “The Pluto Files,” Tyson—an astrophysicist at New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and director of the Hayden Planetarium—examines Pluto’s “fall from grace,” and celebrates the former planet’s role in science and culture. Throughout its controversial history, Pluto has always been a kind of celestial underdog, prone to being slighted—both deliberately and inadvertently.
Yet, as “The Pluto Files” makes abundantly clear, Pluto has a surprisingly passionate following, especially when one considers that we’re talking about a distant ball of rock and ice. After presiding over the development and opening of AMNH’s Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space (whose exhibits deliberately set Pluto apart from the eight other planets), Tyson became Plutophile enemy #1, and in light of the subsequent demotion, ultimately earned him a reputation as “the man who killed Pluto.” Of course, public criticism—especially when it comes from obstinate third-graders—makes good fodder for a book, and he spends more than a few pages reviewing the sometimes comical responses to Pluto’s plight.
While things will never be the same for Pluto now that it has been “plutoed” (defined by the American Dialect Society as “to demote or devalue someone or something”), Plutophiles may take a small measure of comfort in the release of Tyson’s learned and lighthearted book. At least Pluto is now getting the attention—if not the respect—it deserves.