Skip to main content

The Pluto Files – Neil deGrasse Tyson ***

There’s something not right feeling about the assertion in the subtitle of this book that Pluto is ‘America’s favorite planet’. It may be true, as astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests, that Pluto is the children’s favourite because of the association with the Disney character of the same name, but I find it hard to believe that, as he suggests, it’s America’s favourite because it was discovered by an American (even if it was named by British eleven-year-old girl). I doubt if many people know this to be the case, and my suspicion is that Mars, Jupiter and Saturn would all be more popular if properly assessed. Mind you, I have real doubts about Mr Tyson’s ability to judge people, when he says ‘among all planet names… Pluto sounds the most like the punch line to a hilarious joke.’ Is this really an astronomer who has never heard a Uranus joke?
This is a fairly lighthearted book, a compendium of items about Pluto from a man who was apparently vilified as one of the early astronomers to demote Pluto from being a true planet. Personally I really can’t see what all the fuss is about – but a lot of people do, and Tyson brings this out neatly, starting with the pop culture associations of Pluto, going onto the details of its discovery, what little science there can be for such an uninteresting lump of real estate, and concluding with a long, breathless section on the de-planetization of Pluto.
The problem with this book is that the subject is, at best, quite interesting. That Tyson struggles to keep the attention reflects more about the subject matter than the writer. It doesn’t help that the book format is neither one thing nor another. At times it feels like a kids’ picture book – one of those books with fake pasted in documents and spy-type grid patterns. At others it’s more of a straight text excursion.
If you’re a solar system fan, this is a book you ought to have, without a doubt. It’s a great book on Pluto. The only question is whether most of want a great book on Pluto.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…