Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Pluto Files

I've seen Neil deGrasse Tyson over and over again on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and always enjoyed his appearances, so I wasn't surprised to find The Pluto Files (2009) an entertaining book. It's all about the controversy over Pluto's recent reclassification to dwarf planet and Kuiper Belt object, and it's a good mix of science, humor, and cultural commentary (in that Pluto doesn't care how we classify it, but the fact of the controversy says a lot about us.)

And, to my surprise, I learned something I didn't know about my historical era--when William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781 (the first planet not visible to the naked eye to be found), he was offered the honor of naming it. He called it Georgium Sidus (George's Star) in honor of his patron, George III. He believed this was more rational and in keeping with the spirit of the times than to name it after a pagan god or mythological figure. Problem is, no one outside of England much liked the idea, and the scientific community eventually settled on Uranus. (I can't figure out, either from deGrasse Tyson's book or Wikipedia, how long it took for the Uranus name to gain currency, so I can't figure out which name the characters in my 1805-set WIP would use. Fortunately, I can't think of any reason why they'd need to bring it up, though I do like discovering these little nuggets of history to remind me how my characters' mental map of the universe would differ from mine.)

1 comment:

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Even Tyson is now saying he recognizes the debate about Pluto is far from over. Many astronomers reject the controversial demotion of Pluto by four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately rejected in a petition of hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Pluto is both a planet and a Kuiper Belt Object. It's a planet because it is large enough to have been pulled into a round shape by its own gravity. That is a characteristic of planets and not of asteroids or most Kuiper Belt Objects. It's a Kuiper Belt Object due to its location. Three other objects share this dual status: Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

I plan on writing a book about Pluto, which should be out sometime before New Horizons gets there in 2015. I hope you'll read it and review it when the time comes.