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Book Review: The Hunt for Planet X

March 13, 2009 on 12:49 pm | In Solar System |

Pluto, try as some people may to belittle it, is too beloved to simply go away. Even anti-Plutonians are fascinated by it. So to celebrate the state of Illinois’ very first Pluto Day, since Pluto was discovered exactly 79 years ago today, I present to you a review of Govert Schilling’s newly released book, The Hunt for Planet X: New Worlds and the Fate of Pluto.

This is one of the most detailed books about the Solar System, its history, and the neighborhood at and around our Sun. Schilling starts in the 18th Century, when the Solar System was “well known” with its six planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. He tells fascinating versions of the discovery of Uranus, including its naming and its impact on those interested in Astronomy, a great version of the discovery of Neptune, a personal favorite historical story of mine, and spares no detail in telling about the important people and personalities involved.

There’s also a very intricate history given of the asteroid belt, including of a time when the asteroids Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta were all called planets. But the star of this book is no star at all, but the small, icy, distant world, Pluto.

The book talks about Clyde Tombaugh and the discovery of Pluto, omitting practically no detail, and continues to go on about the discovery of its major moon, Charon (and later the theory of its formation), and its two far smaller moons, Nix and Hydra. Throughout this, the reader gets a genuine feeling of the good fortune that goes into such a discovery, as well as the myriad of hours and patience that being a good observational astronomer requires. Amateur astronomers, especially, will find much to identify with in this book, including a kinship with many who share their passion for the heavens.

The last great thing that I really enjoyed about this book was its discussion of the Kuiper Belt and the many objects that have been discovered there so far. It really keeps in perspective that the first Kuiper Belt object other than Pluto and Charon was only discovered in 1992, and yet already, we know that there are many other icy worlds just as important to our Solar System as Pluto:

The book is very well illustrated throughout, with some wonderful pictures in both color and black and white, of the astronomical objects themselves, the astronomers who discovered them, and on special occasions, the actual astronomical data that were used in their discovery.

There are some negatives to this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you what they are. There is a sense of despair when he discusses theories that didn’t pan out, such as the Nemesis theory (that the Sun has a super-long-period binary companion), the search for a fifth very massive giant planet, and the idea of Vulcan (a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury). This is also not a quick, easy read. Because the book is so dense with details, it often takes quite some time to digest all the information that’s being related. This book could have also used an editor, as every story in the book is given the same weight, whereas many are clearly both more important to the book overall and also are simply more interesting. And this is a personal distaste, but the sheer amount of time and space devoted to the naming of Solar System objects is way out of proportion to their actual importance. Finally, there’s hardly any mention at all of planets around other stars, which would certainly not be out of place in this book.

But to anyone really interested in Pluto and in understanding our Solar System in general, this book contains all the latest, up-to-date scientific information, including on Neptune’s Moon, Triton, and on things as esoteric as what you can learn from an occultation. This book will probably be obsolete when the New Horizons mission gets to Pluto in 2015, but until then, you won’t find a better, more comprehensive source of information that’s accessible to a non-scientist about the Solar System. Overall, to anyone interested in learning about some of the lesser-known worlds in our Solar System and the stories of their discovery, The Hunt For Planet X is for you.

Happy Pluto Day!


14 Comments »

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  1. Did you ever read Rocky Kolb’s “Blind Watchers of the Sky?”, because this book sounds similar in style.

    I’m also continually on the hunt for good pop-sci level books to use in my planetary science course, so I might have to give this one a gander.

    Comment by James Chisholm — March 13, 2009 #

  2. Rocky’s a great communicator and one of my favorite people in astrophysics. I haven’t read his non-technical books but I don’t doubt at all that they’re excellent.

    You’d have to pick-and-choose from this one if you were going to use it for your course. There’s certainly enough good material, especially about the asteroid belt and the kuiper belt, as well as a neat bit on occultation, but there’s almost nothing in there about the inner 6 planets.

    Comment by ethan — March 13, 2009 #

  3. u suc

    Comment by usuc — June 17, 2009 #

  4. you fucking psyko…. you look like crasy guy.
    where is planet m??? planet x is just a big fucking lie

    Comment by pierre — September 5, 2009 #

  5. i just wanna thank you for sharing your information and your site or blog this is simple but nice article I’ve ever seen i like it i learn something today… for anything else you buy, you always know what it is you’re getting into; with car rentals, there is no such luck.

    Comment by Camelia Legros — September 20, 2010 #

  6. Really enjoyed reading this post and will be getting a copy of this book

    Comment by Costumes — March 4, 2011 #

  7. I really like the stars, and they all seem like a transparent ball. It is so beautiful.

    Comment by Udreamycostumes — June 28, 2011 #

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    Comment by Elza Seher — July 16, 2011 #

  10. I think the whole planet x thing now has long gone - no-one has seen this planet and surely it should be visible by now?

    Comment by Mark — August 1, 2012 #

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