Mike Brown’s Twitter handle gives a good sense of his humor: plutokiller. He takes rather regretful glee in his role in the demise of Pluto’s planet status. He acknowledges the sentimental place in American hearts held by the smallest planet, and was sorry to be part of the change. Perhaps especially as it cost him the honor of discovering the 10th planet!
It is the combination of engaging humor, accessible science and personal anecdote that makes this lively account especially appealing. Students interested in the sciences will appreciate the glimpse into what such a career (albeit, an extremely successful one) might entail.
Brown’s book makes a nice pairing with Percival’s Planet by Michael Byers (Henry Holt, 2010), a fictional account of the discovery of Pluto in the 1930s. It would certainly point up the huge difference in techniques between then and now.
Adult/High School–Brown is a Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech, where his specialty is searching for new planets on the edges of our solar system. Here he gives a charming account of his astounding series of discoveries that led to the down-grading of Pluto from planet status. With a great sense of self-deprecating humor, he communicates the excitement of discovery, as well as the simple love of gazing at the night sky. Brown discovered Sedna, which turned out to be something new to science, “a fossil left over from the birth of the sun.” Imagine learning about the sun by studying an entity present when it came into being. When he found Xena (named after Xena: Warrior Princess, later renamed Eris), he was the first person in over 150 years to discover an object bigger than Pluto. But Xena’s very similarity to Pluto forced him to acknowledge that his discovery was not a 10th planet, and to reconsider the definition of “planet” altogether. The author’s account of the controversy surrounding Haumea, another possible planet, reads like a thriller. Brown and his team were about to announce their find when a Spanish scientist, José-Luis Ortiz, scooped them. They later learned that Ortiz used Brown’s own data without acknowledgement or permission. Throughout, Brown conveys the daily working life of a scientist and the scientific process, the hours spent scanning digital photographs of the sky taken by telescopes halfway across the globe, and writing software to make work more efficient. Brown writes with an energy, excitement, and sense of humor ideal for teens, making the science accessible to general readers.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City