Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year's Message

The Internet is a strange place. On the one hand, it empowers people, providing easy access to information and enabling those with like-minded interests to come together and share those interests. Unfortunately, the nature of the beast is that it can also become a venue for rumors, false information, and misunderstandings.

On several recent occasions, especially over the last few weeks, various comments and statements which I never made and do not support have been attributed to me. Additionally, things I said in jest have been misinterpreted as being serious when this was never the intention. Whether this all is due to simple misunderstanding or miscommunication of things I said, I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

I have never said and never would say that Mike Brown's book should be banned or not published or that he should not be permitted to give public talks.  As a writer, I recognize the sanctity of the First Amendment, and as the cliche says, I may disagree with what someone says, but I will defend to death their right to say it. That is true for those with whom I disagree about any subject, including the status of Pluto. Suppression of discussion and debate is never a good thing.

What I do advocate is that forums, publications, web sites, seminars, etc. present both sides of the issue by hosting speakers representing both opposing positions and/or printing articles representing both opposing positions. In some cases, there are more than two positions on an issue, and all should be heard.

In his essay On Liberty, 19th-century writer John Stuart Mill advocates an "open marketplace of ideas," meaning every idea, every position should be given a venue. An optimist, Mill believed the best ideas would rise to the top on their own merit. Whether and how often this happens is a matter of debate, but Mill's noble concept remains an ideal for every free and open society.

Additionally, some comments I have made as jokes or tongue-in-cheek remarks have unfortunately been taken the wrong way. Brown's description of himself as "plutokiller" will inevitably bring on references to Death Stars and various science fiction destruction scenarios. It should naturally be understood that this is an attempt to inject some humor into the debate. Similarly, humorous comments referencing Star Wars or Harry Potter in response to the "plutokiller" theme are also jokes and not meant to be taken as ever wishing harm on anyone.

The response to my involvement in astronomy and advocacy for Pluto has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been a few exceptions where I have received vitriolic emails from people who either disagree with me or do not like what I am doing. These have been very hurtful, and as a journalist, I have publicly exposed their contents in the hope of deterring any such future messages. Sometimes, it is hard to remember that by putting oneself in the public eye, one automatically leaves oneself vulnerable to less than positive feedback. This is the unfortunate nature of the beast, yet it is still a painful thing to face.

The ideal in science is being dispassionate and objective. In the arts, such as writing and acting, where I have spent most of my life, expressing passion openly is much more accepted. I admit to being very passionate about Pluto and about astronomy, but I assure anyone put off by such passion that it in no way reflects any type of malice. While I might be involved in boycotts, protests, or parodies of things I don't like, I would never wish harm to anyone whose views differ from mine or whose style differs from mine (wishing electoral defeat or dissolution/reform of a group such as the IAU does not count as "harm" in my book).

Astronomy is a grand adventure, a constant experience of wonder and discovery. I have been extremely fortunate in finding teachers and mentors, beginning with fellow members of Amateur Astronomers, Inc. of Cranford, NJ, and extending to amateur and professional astronomers around the world and instructors at Swinburne University, who have been eager to teach, generous with their time, and patient in explaining difficult concepts. These experiences and a love of planetary science have led me to decide to further my studies at Swinburne in the Masters program.

Astronomy also unites us all by reminding us that we are one people on one "pale blue dot," a small planet that is fragile, has seen too much abuse, and is in tremendous need of healing. The "Star Trek" universe always appealed to me because in it, humanity was able to move beyond war and petty divisions to come together for the greatest adventure of all--the exploration of "strange new worlds." I still believe this can be our future.

Toward that end, I apologize to anyone of whom I spoke ill or maligned or was perceived to do so, and emphasize again that my purpose in writing online is solely the promotion of planet status for Pluto and all dwarf planets. It never has been and never will be a personal vendetta.

Here's wishing a Happy, Healthy 2011 to all seven billion people on this planet and to the animal and plant life with which we share our world. While debating the definition of planet and the status of celestial objects, I hope we can all remember to have fun, to maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing, and to never forget the wonders of our universe and be grateful for the opportunities to experience them.Happy New Year!

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