The Pluto Files

The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet

The Pluto Files book cover

Gathered here in one place is a record of Pluto’s rise and fall from planethood, given by way of media accounts, public forums, cartoons, and letters I received from disgruntled school children, their teachers, strongly opinionated adults, and colleagues.

Gathered here in one place is a record of Pluto’s rise and fall from planethood, given by way of media accounts, public forums, cartoons, and letters I received from disgruntled school children, their teachers, strongly opinionated adults, and colleagues.

In February 2000, the American Museum of Natural History opened its $230-million Frederic Phinneas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space, containing the rebuilt Hayden Planetarium on the corner of 81st Street and Central Park West in New York City. The newly conceived exhibits treated the solar system in a way that was without precedent for public institutions, even though murmurs had already begun in the planetary science community that something needed to be done about Pluto’s classification in the solar system.

The exhibit models, their accompanying text, and the overall layout of the Rose Center organized the principal contents of the solar system by objects of like properties, rather than as enumerations of planets and their moons. This decision landed Pluto among the growing number of icy objects found in the outer solar system, and left it unmentioned and out of view of our models for the rocky, terrestrial objects (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) and the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). By this organization, we practically abandoned the concept of planet altogether.

This decision represented the consensus of the science committee for the Rose Center’s design and construction, of which I served as head. While the accountability and originality of our pedagogical approach to the subject lies equally among us on the committee, as director of the Hayden Planetarium I became the most visible exponent of this decision when, a full year after the Rose Center opened to the public, the New York Times broke a page-one news story that we had demoted Pluto from its ranks of planethood. I was thenceforth branded a public enemy of Pluto lovers the world over.

This distinction prevailed until August 2006, when the International Astronomical Union (IAU), prompted by pressure from the professional community of planetary scientists as well as from the general public, brought Pluto’s planethood to a vote at a triennial General Assembly in Prague, Czech Republic. The result? Pluto was formally downgraded from “Planet” to “Dwarf Planet,” thereby helping to diffuse the negative attention that I, and the Rose Center, had been receiving for six years running.

It’s one thing for a single institution to re-examine Pluto’s standing in the solar system, but it’s quite another for an international organization of astronomers to do so. When the IAU voting results were made public, a media-frenzy followed, temporarily displacing news stories on terrorism, the Iraq War, genocide in Darfur, and global warming.

The Pluto Files chronicles and documents Pluto’s remarkable grip on the hearts and minds of the public, the professionals, and the press.

In August 2006, the International Astronomical Union voted Pluto out of planethood. Far from the sun, tiny, and eccentric in orbit, it’s a wonder Pluto has any fans. Yet during the mounting debate over Pluto’s status, Americans rallied behind the extraterrestrial underdog. The year of Pluto’s discovery, Disney created an irresistible pup by the same name, and, as one NASA scientist put it, Pluto was discovered by an American for America. Pluto is entrenched in our cultural, patriotic view of the cosmos, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a quest to discover why.

Only Tyson can tell this story: he was involved in the first exhibits to demote Pluto, and, consequently, Pluto lovers have freely shared their opinions with him, including endless hate mail from third graders. In his typically witty way, Tyson explores the history of planet classification and America’s obsession with the “planet” that’s recently been judged a dwarf.

The Pluto Files book cover

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Hardcover

Released: January 2009

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

ISBN: 978-0393065206

Paperback

Released: December 2009

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

ISBN: 978-0393337327

Released: September 2014

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

ISBN: 978-0393350364

Audiobook

Released: January 2009

Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.

ASIN: B001Q94PDC

Digital (Kindle)

Released: July 2010

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

ASIN: B001NLKXF2