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Thursday, May 14, 2009


The Hunt for Planet X – Book Review

You should read this post while listening to Jimmy and the Keys "They Demoted Pluto"

It all started with Uranus. Before Herschel found Uranus lurking amongst the stars, people were quite content with the idea that the solar system contained 6 planets (and an increasing number of Moons, once the shock of Galileo’s discovery of the Medicean Stars had abated). But with Uranus swimming into view, people began to wonder if there were more worlds lurking out there, and hunt them.

So the hunt for “planet X” began, X the unknown, for every discovery of a new world, where X became known and named, there was always another X to take its place in the minds eye, and so the search continues on.

For a subject that evolves over years and in the slow watches of the night, Govert Schilling gives us a rollicking, fast-paced and information packed guide to this never-ending quest in his book “The Hunt for Planet X” (ISBN: 978-0-387-77804-4). I am also envious of his wonderful way with words. One of the big bugbears with communicating scientific information to the general public is how to make it accessible, without dumbing down or oversimplifying. I think he succeeds admirably, generating some memorable images along the way. I have to steal his image of comets as icypoles melting on a footpath.

Almost every aspect of the search for for Planet X is here, from the supposed sun-hugging Vulcanoids, to the discovery of Ceres (briefly a planet before it was demoted), to Nemesis (and Nibiru) the discovery of the Kuiper belt and the giant ice dwarfs, to the the discovery of Pluto and the controversy over Pluto being a planet, it’s all here. Govert Schilling brings it all to life too, the excitement of discovery, the frustration of searching, the personalities of the researchers. People I have known for years as dry names on the mastheads of scientific publications come alive and hope, dream and exult over photographic plates and digital images.

And you learn a lot too, I’ve been reading out this sort of work for ages, following popularisations and scientific papers, but Govert Schilling bought out new aspects for me to understand (I think I finally “get” planetary migration mechanisms now as a result of his explanation). The demolition of the Nibiru myth is masterful too. There are some bits that could do with a bit more detail. Having read “The Neptune File”, his exposition of the controversy over Neptune’s discovery is quite good, but I would have liked more than an assertion that Tom Standage overstates his case.

There is a climax to this book, rather than just a list of (exciting) discoveries. And that is the demotion of Pluto. This thread is masterfully woven into the story; the origin of the solar system and its evolution, the origin of comets, the hunt for ice dwarfs all lead up to the powerful story of the meeting that demoted Pluto. By the end of the book, you can understand why that happened (although you still may not agree with it), and what it means in our new understanding of the solar system.

A fantastic book, get a hold of a copy soon.

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It should be noted that the IAU’s controversial demotion of Pluto is very likely not the last word on the subject and in fact represents only one interpretation in an ongoing debate. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet.
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