When NASA announced the discovery of the ‘10th planet’ in 2005, it was the beginning of the roller coaster ride that ended at the Prague meeting of the International Astronomical Union during August 2006. But the meeting ended not with the inauguration of a new planet but the demotion of Pluto from its former planetary status.
Pluto Confidential – An Insider Account Of The Ongoing Battles Over The Status Of Pluto, by American astronomers Laurence Marschall and Stephen Maran, explores that decision and the circumstances surrounding it. Their writing style is easy to follow, and at times captivating, as they take the reader on a journey from Prague 2006 back to Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons, and then forward to the present day.
In discussing Pluto, the book remains agnostic until near the end, when the authors state their personal positions. Marschall voted to demote Pluto; Maran to retain its status. Perhaps, suggests Marschall, the IAU should simply have stayed out of the decision and let common usage sway the argument. The widely reported infighting at Prague 2006 wasn’t astronomy’s finest hour but, as Marschall and Maran reveal in the historical sections, it wasn’t unprecedented either.
The book’s title and subtitle are misleading. Both focus on Pluto, yet the authors devote half the book to other, unrelated planetary controversies. In itself, this is not a problem as the narrative is interesting, accessible and serves to place the latest debate in context. But the front cover suggests a more contemporary analysis.
Whichever side of the debate you’re on, this is an interesting read that neatly summarises the discussion and controversy – and will no doubt help keep it alive.