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03 December 2023

The case of the planet that was

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favourite Planet. (SUPPLIED)

By Manuela Hoelterhoff

Thank heavens for Pluto, that dark little ice ball glowering at the edge of our solar system. Because comedy and astronomy don't often mix.

Discovered in 1930 by American Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto enjoyed real status for decades as one of the nine planets – and the only one with a Disney dog. Then it was downsized into a lowly dwarf planet in 2006 at a dramatic meeting of astrophysicists. And there are many who wish to inflict even greater injury and simply call Pluto a Kuiper belt object.

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet, is written by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – Pluto enemy number one – especially to children.

"Mommie! Where's Pluto?" they cried at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. As the boss, Tyson had conspired to send Pluto to the riffraff beyond Neptune.

Astrophysicist and TV personality Tyson brings the right light tone to this entertaining story of Pluto's fall from grace. With lots of photos and not too many words, he provides an entertaining mix of history, letters, cartoons, poetry and reports.

Boy, that was sure an exciting General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Prague when, amidst fisticuffs and death threats, Pluto got bumped from the planetary line-up.

So just what's the matter with Pluto? Being really small and icy is bad. Then there's its debris-cluttered orbit and its shape: Pluto is not sufficiently round! And it also keeps company with a strange moon, Charon, which might be a candidate itself for dwarf planethood. The letters from kids are rather charming (though spelling is no longer taught on any level), with one aggrieved child summing up everyone's sentiments on the subject: "Would you say a small child or midget wasn't a person?" Indeed.